As Ottawa continues to review feedback from Northerners on the Nutrition North program, the latest data shows food prices remain stubbornly high in Nunavut.
Nunavummiut are paying 2.2 times more for groceries than the rest of Canada, according to the food price survey the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics released on July 21 reflecting prices collected in March.
This comes as no surprise to Akiitiq Angutiqjuaq, who has been volunteering at the food bank in Iglulik for more than two years. She hasn't been able to see any positive effects from Nutrition North.
"I don't think there's any difference. Maybe there is, but everything here is so expensive that you can't notice," Angutiqjuaq said. "I've had people cry, thanking me for doing what I do (at the food bank)... we want a happier community."
The situation is much the same in Kugaaruk, where Lucy Immingark has volunteered at the food bank for two years. The charitable group usually hands out goods twice each month but had to add a third distribution this month due to high demand, Immingark noted.
She frequently hears complaints about the high cost of groceries from people all over town, she said.
Immingark has been able to see some benefit from Nutrition North over the years, however.
"In some ways it has reduced (food prices)," she said. "It would have cost a lot higher for nutritious food if it wasn't for that program. It's nice that we have that in the North."
There is room for improvement though, she said.
"Pretty much everything is pretty high at the moment," Immingark said of food costs, adding that she'd like to see more supplies shipped by sea rather than by air.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), which oversees Nutrition North, is still reviewing feedback from its tour of Northern Canada last summer, stated INAC spokesperson Stephanie Palma. More than 500 people, including Nunavummiut, provided in excess of 3,500 comments on the often-criticized program, which is intended to lower grocery prices in the North through a federal government subsidy to registered retailers, wholesalers, Northern country food processors and distributors.
Palma was asked repeatedly when Northerners can expect to see changes made to Nutrition North, but she wouldn't provide a timeline.
In the legistlative assembly on June 5, Premier Peter Taptuna, who described Nutrition North as "broken", said he sent a six-page letter to INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett to demand changes to the program.
"At this point, Mr. Speaker, we don’t know the amount of the savings passed on to the consumer. If you don’t know the landed cost, the freight costs and the profit margin, you don’t know if the program is actually assisting Nunavummiut," Taptuna said in the legislative assembly. "That is one of the recommendations that I’ve made to ensure that the savings are passed on to the people in need as this program has been developed to assist Nunavummiut, and at this point we just don’t know if it’s doing that."
Palma noted that Nutrition North has resulted in a five per cent drop – the equivalent of $94.46 per month in savings – on the average cost of a food basket for a family of four between April 2011 and March 2015. She added that more fresh and perishable items are accessible to consumers due to the program.
Nutrition North doesn't set prices for subsidized items, according to Palma, but follows a market-driven model that is influenced by community isolation and size, the mode of transportation and distance travelled, cost of power and wages, market competition and world market trends.
The 2016 federal budget included an additional $64.5 million for Nutrition North over five years and an extra annual contribution of $13.8 million as of 2021. In 2015-16, the program's subsidy budget was $68.5 million.