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NDP Urges Feds to Expand Northern Food Subsidies

'This is a systemic issue,' says MP Ashton of grocery costs in Canada's north.

Jeremy Nuttall 27 May 2015TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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The federal New Democrats say high food costs in 46 northern communities could be mitigated if the government invested $7.5 million to expand the Nutrition North Canada program.

NDP MPs representing ridings across the top of Canada revealed the findings of an analysis of food prices in northern communities at a Parliament Hill media conference on Tuesday.

Nutrition North was established in 2011 with the aim of lowering the cost of nutritious food to residents in remote areas through subsidies to food sellers.

Using public information, the NDP examined 46 far-flung communities with no road access that received no or partial subsidies under the program, then contacted people in those communities to ask about the cost of food in their area.

The cost of transporting fresh food to northern communities leads to high prices.

According to Dennis Bevington, MP for the Northwest Territories, food prices in towns that are not subsidized through the program have reached a point where people are paying $17 for four litres of milk.

"To leave those people out of the program is wrong," Bevington said. "Many of them are partially subsidized too, where they're given five cents (per kilogram of food), which is ridiculous. It doesn't amount to anything."

A table produced by the group shows that the cost of milk under full subsidy in such regions would cost $8 for four litres.

All together, Bevington said the issue of high-priced food in remote communities could be solved with $7.5 million in funding from the federal government.

That, he said, would enable the feds to expand the Nutrition North program, which currently fully or partially subsidizes more than 150 communities.

Program criticized

Nutrition North became the subject of controversy after an unfavourable Auditor General's report last fall, along with accusations the program is so ineffective that residents in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut were scouring the local dump for food.

Bevington said the program needs much improvement, but that the $7.5 million would be a good start to fixing it. He suggested a swipe card program where residents are given a card loaded with credits or cash to buy food could be a preferable approach to subsidizing the program through retailers.

Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill, Manitoba, accused the Conservative government of avoiding the issue and acting slowly when communities ask to be added to the Nutrition North program.

"This is a systemic issue. There are obviously many communities that deserve to be admitted right away, and buying time is not an acceptable approach," Ashton said.

The Auditor General's report on the program made the same criticism, and said the program was not "identifying eligible communities based on need." Instead, recipients are chosen in part based on past usage of the now defunct "Food Mail Program."

Yearly reviews of the program were promised when Nutrition North was founded, and so far not a single review has taken place, Bevington said.

He said the New Democrats will press for a debate on the program in the House of Commons.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Federal Politics

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