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Nutrition North alternative needed

Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison
Northern News Services
Published Monday, September 5, 2011

It's time for Nutrition North Canada, the federal government's replacement for the Food Mail program, to change or be sacked altogether, according to Sahtu residents who haven't seen savings on their grocery bills.

"The program is not working, that's all I'm saying," said Suat Lin of Norman Wells.

"If a government replaces a program, it should either be better or equivalent, not worse."

Nutrition North, run by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, was put in place April 1 and has been slow to garner many good reviews.

The main concern from Sahtu residents is in order for Northerners to use the Nutrition North program they must shop in a local store.

"The problem with our store, the only one in town, is that the prices are so high, the selection is often generally poor and the quality of fresh food is often poor," wrote Mark and Shirley Harewood, Tulita residents, in a letter to the Nutrition North co-ordinator in May.

"The store does not seem to be accountable to anyone."

The goal of Nutrition North, according to a government website, is to provide better access to healthy, affordable food. It gives retail subsidies for healthy foods, with the highest subsidies going to perishable foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, bread, eggs and milk.

The Northern Store in Tulita, where the Harewoods now shop, has seen small price decreases since April 1.

Four litres of milk dropped to $11.39 from $13.69, 650g of yogurt dropped to $5.79 from $6.15, three pounds of apples dropped to $11.19 from $11.79 and a dozen eggs dropped to $5.85 from $6.29, according to its letter.

Despite the changes, residents say the Food Mail program was still, by far, a better deal.

Since the 1960s it offered an air transportation subsidy to reduce the cost of shipping to Northern communities.

Residents could order food from Yellowknife directly to their homes, as long as they had a credit card.

Now, because of the switch to a market-driven program that no longer includes this subsidy, Extra Foods and the Co-op have both opted out of the program.

Lin said she plans to start a greenhouse to grow her own food and will pay full freight costs to ship in the rest.

"If I want something, I want it fresh, just charge me something that is reasonable," she said.

Leo Doyle, director of Nutrition North Canada, admitted the government is still working out some bugs, but said the new system is by far the best option.

"Given the circumstances, having a system that takes advantage of aboriginal businesses ... aboriginal-owned airlines, we think that's probably a better fit for the North," he said.

"There has been no loss of coverage in that all of the communities have food retailers who are on board."

The federal government contributes $60 million to Nutrition North annually, and Doyle said food subsidy rates will likely change in the fall, to reflect input from the public.

He said switching from a system essentially run by Canada Post to a system run by food retailers and suppliers will take time, but that the 80 public engagement sessions the government ran in Northern communities helped shape how it looks now.

"We think that the option that we came up with is the most viable," he said

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