Critics question whether Nutrition North serves its purpose

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Canada’s Auditor General Michael Ferguson has forced politicians to agree that the Nutrition North Canada (NNC) food subsidy program is broken. But that agreement among politicians doesn’t go very far – certainly not as far as how best to fix it.

spaghettini-ron_elliottIn late March, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt announced that his office was appointing Tracy M. Rispin, from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, to NNC’s advisory board. On April 1, Valcourt’s office added that they would be requiring all NNC retailers to provide information about their profit margins to independent auditors in order to ensure retailers were passing on federal subsidies to their customers, rather than simply pocketing the difference.

This was not enough for Dennis Bevington, NDP MP for Northwest Territories. The day after Valcourt’s second announcement, he led NDP MPs Romeo Saganash, Niki Ashton, Charlie Angus, Carol Hughes and Jonathan Genest-Jourdain in proposing an alternative approach to running NNC.

According to Bevington, the problems all start at the NNC’s beginning.

“Unlike most food subsidy programs in the world,” he told the Nation, “rather than providing the subsidy directly to the consumer through a smart card or in some other form, the Conservatives decided to subsidize the retailer. We should go back to that original decision and ask what might work better. When we subsidize the retailer, the consumer doesn’t know whether they’re getting the subsidy applied to them and the products they’re buying.”

Bevington also attacked the government’s decision not to extend the program to 50 northern communities on the grounds that those communities had not been involved in the previous Food Mail program.

“That’s like saying to someone, ‘You didn’t participate in a particular income tax credit, so you’re never going to get it now,’” he said. “I don’t buy that argument at all. I think the reason they didn’t apply it to those other 50 communities is that they knew then they’d have to put more money into the program. The auditor general identified that as $7 million. They took a hard look at it and realized it didn’t fit into their budget, so they didn’t put it in.”

Nutrition North, said Bevington, needs to prove itself effective to the northern consumers who are ostensibly supposed to benefit.

“It may be that it needs to be completely changed to a consumer-based program. It may be simpler to have a smart card that could be renewed every month. We can set the parameters so it’s only good for certain food – we’ll provide X amount of dollars for fresh food, and they can choose how they want to spend it. Then they’ll know they’re getting that subsidy.”

However, Bevington underlines that a food subsidy program is only part of lowering the cost of food in northern communities. Many foods and other products that are predominantly water-based could be far cheaper if shipped in concentrate form. He gives the example of bleach, which costs roughly $2 in southern communities like Ottawa and Montreal, but sells for $30 a gallon in Paulatuk, NWT.

“Bleach is used quite a bit in isolated remote communities with water delivery,” he said. “They clean their tanks and deal with mould in their households with bleach. It’s an important substance. So why aren’t the stores bringing in concentrated bleach, so people can simply buy a small container and make their own bleach?”

Too much of modern northern culture, Bevington said, operates around a southern consumer model. A more traditional model of using raw products could add value – by baking bread locally, for example. Many stores in the north, he laments, are full of highly packaged products designed for individual consumers.

“There’s no bin of loose grain to take just what you need. You never see that in our northern stores! We just have this processed food mentality of our retailers. That’s not the way we should go. You have to accept that if you want to be successful in the northern lifestyle, you have to engage.”

Currently organizing a forum on localizing the economy, Bevington wants northerners to consider the value of imported materials brought into the communities and determine which can be replaced locally to provide jobs and fuel local communities. The north, he stresses, should have its own rural economy.

“But we have almost a consumer-based economy, where we buy everything. And that’s a disaster for us. It has to change. We’re not going to be like the south. There’s not going to be cheap imported food: it’s going to be expensive. You can’t get away from that, but you can – with proper subsidies for the right items – make sure that diets are balanced. If we start to bring things in bulk and do more food processing ourselves, then we can reduce a lot of costs.”

However, Bevington had no bad words for Valcourt appointee Rispin, noting that her home community of Old Crow was very progressive. He said she led the drive to establish a co-op in the community to reduce food costs for residents of Old Crow – the only fly-in community in the Yukon.

“I hope she brings those kinds of changes [to NNC],” he said. “Rispin seems to be the kind of person you’d actually want on the board. You want somebody who’s going to look for solutions.”

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