Ten reasons why Nutrition North Needs a complete Overhaul

Nutrition North Canada (NNC) is a Government of Canada subsidy program launched on April 1, 2011 to bring healthy food to isolated Northern communities. NNC replaced the Food Mail Program, which was operated by Canada Post since the late 60’s. Much like Food Mail, the purpose of NNC is to make nutritious food more accessible and more affordable to residents of isolated northern communities that lack year-round surface and marine transportation links to southern centres.

Although NNC was developed to be a better alternative to the Food Mail program, Northerners have been saying different. People that live and purchase groceries in Canada’s north have taken to social media, organized protests and told all that will listen that the NNC program is not working.

It’s time to overhaul the program and here’s why ….

1. Food Continues To Be Extremely Expensive

It’s difficult for many to feed a family in the Canadian North, and extremely expensive in remote Arctic communities. High poverty rates make it challenging to stretch the monthly budget. A grassroots group from Nunavut, Feeding My Family, was created to raise awareness of the high cost of food and to advocate for change.

2. People Are Hungry

“There are people hungry, there are kids going to bed hungry. That are lots of families that are like that. … We’ve heard from a lot of mothers who say they don’t eat so their kids can eat. A lot of mothers don’t send their kids to school because they haven’t eaten anything that day”. – Leesee Papatsie, CBC Radio Interview, August 2015

7 out of 10 Inuit preschool children are food insecure, 25% of them severely

hungry child crying

3. People Scavenge For Food At The Local Dump

“Studies say 1 in 3 Inuit are starving.  Families are known to forage at the dump hoping to find the expensive foods the stores throw out. Fresh fruit and vegetables are some of the highest priced groceries in the North … the very foods the Nutrition North program was designed to make affordable”. – Source APTN Investigates

Inuit in Nunavut looking for food at the dump

4. Lack of Affordable, Nutritious Food Directly Contributes to High Levels of Food Insecurity

food in·se·cu·ri·ty
the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food for an active healthy life

food insecurity in canada by province and territory

5. Persistent Food Insecurity Results in Severe Health and Emotional Health Issues

“In Nunavut the average life span is approximately 12 years lower than the average Canadian. This is for a number of reasons such as access to healthcare, lower average of socioeconomic standing, poor quality of housing, and the quality of basic services such as drinking water and affordable food. Not having proper access to food can lead to a number of health issues such as low birth weights, developmental delays, depression, anxiety and suicide. High rates of diabetes are a large indicator of the food that Aboriginal people are ingesting. There has been a change in diet from traditional foods to European foods and medicine.  The cost of food is also high unless the person is purchasing processed “junk foods“. These types of foods can lead to a decline in physical health and this is not the preferred diet of a traditional Aboriginal person. There are certain essential nutrients that are especially of concern in Aboriginal diets: protein, zinc, vitamin D, iron, omega 3 fatty acids, and selenium. These influence a person’s physical health as well as their mental and emotional health. The caribou and other traditional foods are excellent sources of these nutrients”. Read More: Wikipedia

This map outlines anticipated rise in diabetes in the Canadian north.
expected diabetes in Canada map

“Before 1940, there was no evidence of diabetes among Aboriginal groups in Canada. Today, the disease is reaching epidemic proportions, with rates approximately three times the national average”. Source: uOttawa

Infant Mortality rate in Nunavut“Nunavut has rates of infant mortality, postneonatal mortality and hospitalization of infants for respiratory infections that greatly exceed those for the rest of Canada”. – Source: PubMed.gov

Suicide rates in canada by province and territory

Suicide is at crisis levels. Since 1999, 486 people have died by suicide in Nunavut. In 2013 alone, 45 people took their lives. The Territory has developed the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy to address the issue.

6. NNC subsidy only applies to a specific list of food

Nutrition North program subsidizes a small list of food to remote Canadian communities. Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, also Nunavut’s MP, said the finalized list “covers a broad range of foods that are typical of the northern diet, including country foods.”  This sounds great but the previous Food Mail program, covered nutritious food and more.

The NNC list omits several key items needed to feed a family, run a household and live in northern Canada. Essential items such as cleaning supplies, diapers, toilet paper, feminine products, clothing, hunting supplies are not part of the NNC program.

Nutrition North 2012 Food List

7. It’s Been four FIVE SIX Years!

When the NNC program was developed, promises were made to review the list of eligible food items every year. It’s been 6 years and that hasn’t happened despite the fact that many program users have been saying the list of eligible foods do not match their diet.

At minimum, the program needs to be reviewed in keeping with economic factors.  NNC subsidy rates should match food inflation rates.

The Iqaluit Airport improvements ($418 million dollar airport!) and the new codeshare agreement between Canadian North and First Air have resulted in higher freight rates and shipping delays which impact food costs, accessibility and shelf quality.

8. Weather Challenges

“The purpose of NNC is to make nutritious food more accessible and more affordable to residents of isolated northern communities that lack year-round surface and marine transportation links to southern centres”. – NNC

The program fails to plan for typical northern weather patterns that at times, prevent delivery of groceries. During winter storms or summer fog, grocery shelves can become bare. There are times when subsidized food selections are limited or just not available for purchase.

Weather is beyond everyone’s control. However, the NNC program’s lack of consideration of extreme weather events, is a major flaw in the program.

9. Canada’s Auditor General Found Flaws in The Program

A 2014 audit of the Nutrition North program found that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada had not done enough to meet the objective of making healthy foods more accessible and affordable to residents of isolated northern communities.  The audit also found AANDC has not verified whether northern retailers pass on the full Nutrition North subsidy to consumers and questioned why many remote communities were not included in the full scope of the program.

10. Food is A Human Right and Canada has an International Legal Obligation to Respect It

What is the right to food? – Food Secure Canada explains…

“The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

“The right to food requires the possibility either to feed oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources, or to purchase food, and includes several key elements: (a) availability; (b) accessibility; and (c) adequacy:

a) Availability relates to there being sufficient food on the market to meet the needs.

b) Accessibility requires both physical and economic access: physical accessibility means that food should be accessible to all people, including the physically vulnerable such as children, older persons or persons with disabilities; economic accessibility means that food must be affordable without compromising other basic needs such as education fees, medical care or housing.

c) Adequacy requires that food satisfy dietary needs (factoring a person’s age, living conditions, health, etc), be safe for human consumption, free of adverse substances and culturally acceptable.”  Read More: Food Secure Canada

United Nations – Canada Mission

Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food undertook an official visit to Canada in May 2012. The purpose of the trip was to examine the way in which the human right to adequate food is being realized in Canada. The Official Report is a 21 page document that includes several observations and recommendations. Read what was written about the NNC program on page 17 of the report.

UN Special Rapporteur NNC Concerns:

  • In the absence of adequate monitoring of those NNC is intended to benefit, it is unclear whether the programme is achieving its desired outcome
  • Nutrition North Canada does not require retailers to inform Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada or the public of their airfreight costs. As such, the federal Government has no way of verifying if the subsidy is being passed on
  • Questions were also raised regarding the eligibility criteria on which communities fall within the scope of the programme
  • Nutrition North Canada was designed and is being implemented without an inclusive and transparent process that provides Northern communities with an opportunity to exercise their right to active and meaningful participation

“It was recognized that neither Nutrition North Canada nor the Food Mail Program could address other factors responsible for the high food costs in northern communities, such as the high cost of energy for heating and refrigeration, electricity generation, building construction, equipment maintenance, etc. Food costs remain higher in the North than elsewhere in Canada for legitimate reasons, but more needs to be done to improve the effectiveness of Nutrition North Canada”. – official report


Aglukkaq slams UN envoy’s agenda on the right to food – Nunatsiaqonline
Aglukkaq says Aboriginal people “hunt everyday” rejects United Nations Rapporteur as “ill-informed and patronizing academic” – aptn National News
UN envoy blasts Canada for ‘self-righteous’ attitude over hunger, poverty – National Post

Video:  In this talk, Olivier De Schutter explains how the right to food came about, what it means and the kind of framework laws that can help give it effect. He discusses governments’ obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to food, the major transitions needed to create sustainable food systems, the obstacles to be overcome, and the bottom-up activities in support of these changes.

We believe the Canadian government has the resources and expertise to create an effective food program.

Please join Feeding My Family’s letter writing campaign to ask your Member of Parliament to do more for the North.

Article Updated August 17, 2016 to revise #7 headline. Updated again, July 14, 2017 to revise #7 headline.



Taye Newman

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