Food insecurity in Nunavut has actually worsened in the years since the federal government launched a retail subsidy program aimed at improving access and affordability in Canada’s North, according to new research.

The study, recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that in the years since the Nutrition North Canada program was introduced in 2011, more Nunavut households have struggled to consistently put food on the table.

The University of Toronto researchers examined Statistics Canada data from the Canadian Community Health Survey covering 3,250 households in 10 Nunavut communities from 2007 to 2016 to find the impact the Nutrition North Canada program has had on rates of self-reported food insecurity, defined in the study as insecure or inadequate access to food because of financial constraints.

Their findings revealed that food insecurity affected 33 per cent of families in Nunavut the year before Nutrition North Canada began. In 2011, when the program launched, that number increased to 39 per cent of families. By 2014, a year after full implementation, the rate jumped to 46 per cent of households.

This is despite the fact that the program’s budget increased 65 per cent from $60 million in 2011 to $99 million in 2018.

Access to affordable and nutritious food has been a longtime public health problem in Canada’s North where groceries can cost two or three times more than in other regions of the country.

The researchers said Nunavut is particularly vulnerable with the highest rates of food insecurity since national monitoring began. In fact, in 2014, 46.8 per cent of the territory’s population was affected by food insecurity.

Madeleine Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit, attributes the high rates of food insecurity to low incomes, particularly among the territory’s Inuit population.

“It’s really an issue of poverty,” she told CTV News Channel on Tuesday. “Seven out of 10 Nunavut-Inuit pre-school children are food insecure, are hungry, 25 per cent of them regularly so.”

Redfern said Nutrition North Canada mostly targets fly-in communities without consistent road access, which makes transporting perishable food items, such as fruit and vegetables, especially expensive.

Federal subsidization

Nutrition North Canada replaced an earlier federally funded program called the Food Mail Program, which subsidized transportation costs for the delivery of nonperishable foods and essential nonfood items.

Under the new program, the government focused on perishable, nutritious foods and subsidized southern suppliers and northern retailers instead of transportation companies. The retailers would then pass on the full subsidy to consumers in northern communities at the point of purchase.

The government took a market-driven approach with the Nutrition North Canada plan, believing that market competition would reduce the price of subsidized food even more and contain the program’s overall cost, according to the study.

The researchers speculated that this may explain why food insecurity rates have increased in Nunavut. They said the government’s decision to focus on subsidizing perishable, nutritious food items at the exclusion of nonperishable products may have prevented families from improving their overall access to food because the prices of common nonperishable and essential items then rose.

The study also noted that the federal government reported in 2013 that Nutrition North Canada was successful in improving food access and affordability based on data showing there was an increase in the volume of perishable, nutritious food being shipped to the North.

However, the researchers said this may be explained by the possibility that affluent families were buying more nutritious food now that it was subsidized while low-income households still relied on nonperishable items that became more expensive under the new plan.

The study’s authors called for more effective government initiatives to address the problem of food insecurity in northern Canada. Redfern echoed that position when she said there needs to be a better strategy in place to solve the crisis.

“We need all levels of government and Inuit organizations and corporations coming together to actually have proper strategies,” she said. “We need to ensure that more people are able to actually feed their families and especially our children.”

With files from The Canadian Press