Can policy-makers reconcile food security issues with reality?

By Sam Riches, Special to TVO.org - Published on October 15, 2015
baby being fed
One in six children in Canada is affected by food insecurity, a recent report says.

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When Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq said the solution to the territory’s food crisis is “good education,” she amplified what advocates say is a disconnection between policy-makers and on-the-ground reality.

Food insecurity is growing nationwide, but the effect is acute in northern communities. Nutrition North was meant to address this through subsidies, but it doesn’t apply to all remote communities and falls short even where it does.

A report released last week from PROOF, an international research team focused on policy interventions to address household food insecurity, found that, based on data collected in 2013, one in six children in Canada is affected by food security issues. The most vulnerable households, the report found, were single-parent families headed by women.  Among this group almost 40 per cent of households are food insecure. In total, nearly 3.5 million Canadians experienced food insecurity in 2013 (when the survey was done), and Canada remains the only member of the G8 that does not have a national child nutrition strategy and a school food program.

“Although there has been rigorous measurement and monitoring of household food insecurity in Canada since 2005, the problem has not abated,” the report says. “In fact, it has grown or persisted in every province and territory.”

In Ontario, 642,200 households were food insecure in 2013, an increase of almost 100,000 homes since 2012. Just eight of the 30 fly-in communities in Ontario receive the Nutrition North subsidy. A few of the remaining communities receive partial subsidies but the majority receives little to no help.  Even in the communities where Nutrition North is in place, access to nutritious, affordable food remains a challenge. In Mishkeegogamang, for example, a community of around 2,000 people in northwestern Ontario, the closest grocery store is more than an hour and a half away. So while the community is road accessible, those without reliable means of transportation are left with few options for food.

Joseph LeBlanc, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Sudbury, says the majority of communities in northern Ontario are struggling with food insecurity, including his own.

“Even in Sudbury, the largest municipality in northern Ontario, we suffer from many of these issues as well. It’s very clear that there are families that are food insecure,” says LeBlanc.

Food security has been a recent federal election campaign talking point for the NDP and the Liberals, with each party vowing to overhaul the Nutrition North subsidy and work directly with remote communities to find solutions. The NDP specifically pledged to expand the program to incorporate 50 remote communities not currently covered, including 25 in northern Ontario, and to increase the budget by $32 million. The Liberals have promised $40 million, over four years, and to run the program with greater transparency. But throwing money at a complex issue won’t necessarily solve the problem. Nutrition North has been heavily criticized, and the research done by PROOF suggests that a comprehensive national strategy is called for.

The Conservatives introduced Nutrition North in 2011 as a replacement for the Food Mail program which had been in place since the late 1960s and gave transportation subsidies to communities without regular road or marine access. Nutrition North differs in that it uses a market-driven model, paying a subsidy directly to retailers. The retailers are then contractually obligated to pass the savings onto the consumers. Ottawa capped the Nutrition North subsidy at $60 million and removed 2,700 products from the subsidy list, including toilet paper, diapers and laundry soap, to “streamline the process” and keep the savings on perishable food, although items like processed cheese spread, ice cream, and poutine continue to receive a subsidy.

Last year, the auditor general released a report on Nutrition North after six MPs in northern ridings, including legislative assemblies in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, asked for a review. The report revealed that Aboriginal Affairs did not know whether or not retailers were actually passing the Nutrition North savings onto consumers as the department doesn't require merchants to report their profit margins.

"This data is necessary to determine whether the full subsidy is passed on," the report says. The report concluded that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada had not managed Nutrition North to meet its objective of making “healthy foods more accessible to residents in isolated northern communities as it had not identified eligible communities on the basis of need.” Nutrition North also failed to make healthy foods more affordable as it had not defined affordability, the report says, or had it verified that retailers were passing on the full subsidy to consumers. 

In June, an NDP-led motion calling for immediate reforms to Nutrition North, including the addition of 46 communities to the eligibility list, was defeated by a margin of 148 to 125. Conservative MPs voted unanimously against the proposal.

LeBlanc says contextualizing the problem of food security for government workers and decision makers is a continuous challenge.

“[Food insecurity] is not an inherent trait of indigenous communities or northern communities,” he says. “It’s very much a symptom of a long history of policies and actions that led us to here.”

Solutions geared toward consumers, such as highlighting healthy food options and preparation methods, “ignore the context that we’re in,” Leblanc says.

“You can say this is what broccoli is and this is how you cook it, but if it’s not there or it’s extremely expensive then that’s not addressing the problem of food insecurity. We can promote the use of traditional foods, but if there's herbicide spraying, reduction in moose populations and all these others things, then there aren't foods to eat. It’s an access issue all around.”

Leblanc says facilitating local food production is one way to ease the burden faced by remote communities, communities that were, at one time, thriving hubs of economic activity.

“People would trade and sell goods, furs and others things that they could harvest,” Leblanc says. “The plan to sustain them was this exchange but over time that devolved to one-way exchange: the sale of goods to those communities.”

Leblanc recalled a recent visit to a market in northern Ontario, where they were selling rabbit pelts from the Czech Republic and blueberries from Chile. “Fifty years ago they’d be buying blueberries and pelts from the people. This is why many of these communities exist where they exist and now we develop programs like Nutrition North to reduce the cost of the stuff that’s being brought into them and do nothing at all to promote or encourage the productive lifestyle that once existed.”

Next month, Sudbury will host Bring Food Home, Ontario's biannual sustainable food conference. Leblanc will be there, alongside members of remote northern communities.

Over three days, they will exchange strategies to combat the food crisis. While an overhaul of Nutrition North, and an injection of more dollars into the program, is needed, it’s events like Bring Food Home, Leblanc says, that are another critical part of the equation — they shed light on food security solutions from people with first-hand knowledge.

“Some of the best things we can do,” Leblanc says, “is leverage the opportunities to have people speak for themselves.”

Sam Riches is freelance writer in Toronto with previous reporting stints in the Yukon.

Image credit: Pawal Czaja / Thinkstock

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