Are Subsidies Just Feeding Into Nunavut’s Problems?

A federal program meant to address food insecurity in Nunavut has actually made it worse. How could this be, and what can be done?

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In 2011, the federal government introduced the Nutrition North Canada (NNC) program, a subsidy-based approach aimed at tackling food insecurity in the isolated northern territory of Nunavut. But a new study from the University of Toronto suggests that the situation has actually worsened since the program’s introduction, leading to calls for a policy overhaul.

Food insecurity is a clinical term for inadequate access to food because of money, and the situation can be particularly pervasive in remote areas. The lack of year-round road connectivity to northern communities in areas like Nunavut means that the prices of basic goods are much higher than elsewhere — often two to three times more expensive — since goods need to be flown in.

Higher prices combined with lower incomes, which are particularly common among the indigenous population, makes for a precarious situation regarding food security.

The key finding from this study is that in 2010, 33.1% of Nunavut residents reported going hungry at some point in the year, but following full implementation of the program in 2014, this figure rose to 46.6%. The decline in food security occurred despite an increase in funding for the program, which rose from $60 million in 2011 to $99 million in 2018.

“Our study raises serious concerns about the federal government’s continued focus on food subsidy initiatives to improve food access in the North,” says lead author Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain from the University of Toronto.

So if pouring money into the wrong subsidies is making things worse, how can policy makers spot the right ones?

Market-based approach among suspected factors in worsening situation

Prior to the NNC, the Food Mail Program contributed by subsidizing the cost of air freight transporting a wide variety of goods. Although the food insecurity figures in Nunavut were still the highest in the country, a slight downward trend was in motion prior to the launch of the NNC.

The NNC focuses on nutritious, perishable goods like milk, fruits, and vegetables, and was introduced to reduce the overall cost of the program. It is market-based in its approach: the subsidy is provided to suppliers from southern Canada and northern retailers, who in turn are expected to pass on lower costs to their customers.

However, the reliance on market competition to reduce prices was criticized in the report, which said “the relevance of this model is highly questionable given that there are few retailers and little competition in most eligible communities, and a substantial portion of the targeted population has difficulty accessing the market economy because of poverty.”

A 2013 federal government report stated that the NNC had succeeded in improving food affordability and access, citing data showing that the total amount of perishable, nutritious food being shipped up north had increased. This claim was countered by the study authors, who suspect that this may be attributable to an increase in the consumption of subsidized goods by wealthier households.

Moreover, by excluding non-perishables and other essential items from the subsidy, lower-income residents may have had less overall access to food because the prices for these items began to rise.

In an interview with CTV News, Madeleine Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit, doubled down on the researchers’ findings by emphasizing poverty as the root issue. She added some stark stats concerning the situation for indigenous children: “Seven out of 10 Nunavut-Inuit pre-school children are food insecure…25 percent of them regularly so.”

The authors themselves concluded that “food insecurity was a pervasive problem in Nunavut before Nutrition North Canada, but it has become even more prevalent since the program was implemented. Given the important health consequences of food insecurity, more effective initiatives to address food insecurity in Canada’s North are urgently needed.”

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.