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Nutrition North's data challenged
Former Food Mail manager speaks out on 'wrong-headed' changes to program

Peter Worden
Northern News Services
Published Monday, March 11, 2013

A retired public servant who oversaw Canada's Food Mail program for two decades says Nutrition North Canada lacks transparency, and its price comparisons are misleading.

NNSL photo/graphic

A door display at the Iqaluit North Mart reminds customers to make healthy grocery decisions. As part of Nutrition North Canada's compliance obligations, customers are informed of healthy subsidized food through displays like this, and savings on their store receipt. - Peter Worden/NNSL photo

Fred Hill spent 20 years recording price tags on food in Northern communities as manager of Canada's former Food Mail program. He and a small staff of Indian and Northern Affairs civil servants regularly and dutifully monitored costs, comparing them to southern prices and minding the gap.

In 2010, Nutrition North Canada (NNC) under Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) replaced the Food Mail program operated by Canada Post for more than 40 years. Now a retired public servant, Hill continues to follow the topic of Northern food and prices.

Hill, who helped build the price-check system up over years, said he was disturbed by NNC's new price-monitoring system, which he says works largely on the honour system.

"There is a lot that is not transparent," he said, speaking to Nunavut News/North from his home in Ottawa. "I'm not saying that they are providing false information. I'm just saying there's no verification of it and no penalty for submitting false information and how would the department even know?"

Grocers involved in the program have to submit the retail prices of the 67 food items that make up the Revised Northern Food Basket each month.

According to AANDC spokesperson Genevieve Guibert, this process is more cost-effective than the method in which government conducted physical price surveys under Food Mail. She said only 30 communities served by the program could be surveyed per year, and there were travel and overtime costs to the government.

The only on-the-ground vetting of reported prices is done when NNC officials are in communities for other business reasons.

While certain information is made available to shoppers who, for example, can see the amount of their NNC subsidy on store receipts, Hill said shoppers are in a weaker position because they're not informed of other costs, such as transportation. Whereas every retailer under the Food Mail program received food at a shipping cost of $0.80/kg in every community, now it's up to retailers to negotiate with the airlines, and bigger retailers have a competitive advantage.

"So the North West Company being the largest customer, we would think, would get the best rates from airlines," said Hill.

Last month, Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, raised similar concerns about Nutrition North. De Schutter's report stated that Nutrition North publishes the per kilogram subsidy for each eligible community but does not require retailers to inform the public of their air freight costs.

"As such, the federal government has no way of verifying if the subsidy is being passed on, despite the obligation imposed on subsidy recipients to attest that they have complied with this requirement," reads the report.

On the heels of De Schutter's report, Hill said his concerns about transparency are timely but do not end there. He is also speaking out about what figures NNC is transparent about.

"I was disappointed not only in abandoning this system of monitoring that worked, but also in the way the government has been spinning their results and trying to make it look like prices have come down."

Hill said while under the Food Mail program, he and other departmental officials collected prices from products with surveys to calculate the cost of the food basket. The NNC's Revised Northern Food Basket is a costing tool used as a measure for what would provide a nutritious diet for a family of four for one week. But when these on-site surveys were discontinued in 2010, Hill said the new NNC system now relied exclusively on unverified price information fed to AANDC by major retailers.

According to Hill, Nutrition North officials are using selective statistics in claiming that food prices in the territory have dropped by about eight per cent, but don't say what the beginning or end period is.

"The website does provide figures - it's only based on certain stores, but it does provide figures for all communities with stores that are reporting - so that's how I know that in the first six months of the new program prices went up in every community in Nunavut," said Hill, who called the statistics incomplete and misleading.

"There is no information now that's being published that's comparable to the Food Mail program as it existed before October 2010," he said. "Even if their numbers are correct, we don't know what's happened to prices in other stores."

Nutrition North uses data supplied by retailers between March 2011 and September 2012. Hill said using March 2011 as a baseline is inappropriate and irrelevant because it isn't representative of Food Mail prices since it was six months after many food subsidies such as most non-perishables had been dropped. Instead, he said, NNC should be using more detailed, current data collected the way it was during the Food Mail program through in-store surveys.

"It's all rather complicated I'm afraid," said Hill. "I don't know what the solution is."

Nunavut News/North tried to contact AANDC Minister Bernard Valcourt, who was unavailable for comment. The Food Mail program was originally created under the Brian Mulroney government, in which Valcourt served. Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq's office declined to comment.

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