$29 Cheez Whiz? Food Prices Skyrocket Under Canada's Nutrition North Program

Processed cheese spread: $9.99 to $29.39 - The shelves at the Northern Store in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, in February 2011 show very high prices for things like processed cheese spread, infant formula and instant noodles. Nunavut MLA Ron Elliott, who represents Arctic Bay, says the prices of these items have risen in Nunavut's High Arctic communities since the federal government started changing its northern food subsidy program last year. Photo submitted by Ron Elliott.These grocery shelves in the High Arctic community of Arctic Bay, Nunavut, have people talking this week — $38 for cranberry cocktail, $29 for Cheez Whiz, and a whopping $77 for a bag of breaded chicken.

Arctic Bay-based MLA Ron Elliott, who represents three of Canada’s most northern communities, said he is concerned about already high food prices going up even more in the High Arctic.

“It’s sort of the talk of the town,” he told CBC News on Thursday. “You go in and people are pointing [things] out, and it’s obvious to see that this has gone up, and that’s gone up.”

While groceries in Canada’s remote northern communities are generally more expensive than elsewhere in the country, due to shipping costs, Elliott said prices in his communities have skyrocketed since the federal government changed its northern food subsidy program in the past year.

Elliott said the new subsidy program, called Nutrition North, does not cover food items that are considered not to be healthy or perishable, although those items used to be covered under the government’s old Food Mail Program.

Elliott said the price hikes are hurting the most vulnerable people in his region, like elders and those on social assistance.

Even some healthy foods that are subsidized are still out of some people’s price range, he said.Spaghettini: $13.29 - Dry pasta is among some products, such as canned foods, coffees and teas, that remain subsidized under the Nutrition North Program, but only for northern communities that do not have marine access between Oct. 3 and March 31. Photo submitted by Ron Elliott.

No exemptions: official

The Nutrition North Program replaces the 40-year-old Food Mail Program, in which the costs of transporting grocery items to remote northern communities were subsidized by the federal Indian and Northern Affairs Department.

The Nutrition North subsidy instead goes to retailers, which in turn negotiate their own freight rates with airlines. Retailers are then expected to pass on savings from the subsidy to consumers.

Wilfred Wilcox, who represents Nunavut on Nutrition North’s advisory board, said while he’s sympathetic to the concerns of people in Arctic Bay, he cannot analyze the situation without knowing how much items cost before and when the prices went up.

“I don’t think that it can be done in isolation of the other factors,” Wilcox added. “The other factors are what the freight rates are and where the retailer sits with things.”

Elliott said he would like Ottawa to exempt High Arctic communities from the Nutrition North Program because of their unique situation. The Yukon community of Old Crow is also requesting an exemption.

But Wilcox said it’s not possible for those communities to be exempted from Nutrition North.

Margarine: $27.79 - Hydrogenated margarine, processed cheese spreads, ice cream, side bacon, croissants and garlic bread were subsidized under the federal government's old Food Mail Program, but not anymore under Nutrition North. Federal officials have said they have dropped those items in order to encourage healthy eating habits in northern communities. Photo submitted by Ron Elliott.

CBC News

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