Affording Ontario: The rising cost of food in the north

Northern Ontario struggles with a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. TVO.org talks to federal candidates about how they'd approach the problem
By Jon Thompson - Published on Oct 03, 2019
Bob and Tim Wall harvest carrots at Walls' Pork Shop in Oxdrift, Ontario.
Bob and Tim Wall harvest carrots at Walls' Pork Shop in Oxdrift, Ontario. (Courtesy of Cloverbelt)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle cost-of-living issues in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1; watch for Part 3 on Friday.

THUNDER BAY — For five years, the Cloverbelt Food Co-op, in Dryden, supplied northwestern Ontario with local produce, eggs, honey, and more at competitive prices. Using its online network, it partnered with local businesses and mobilized dozens of volunteers. At its height, the co-operative had 1,600 members spread out across 1,100 kilometres and helped feed 90 families in Dryden alone.

But, on September 10, the last of its members voted to dissolve the network. According to president Jen Springett, the organization’s fortunes began changing last autumn, after the family that had operated the region’s only egg-grading station opted not to renew its licence. The first week without eggs, the co-op lost a quarter of its traffic. As customers fell away, farmers started offering fewer products. Some held “meet the producer” nights to drum up demand, but sales didn’t improve.

“It’s hard to say goodbye because of all we achieved, but it definitely wasn’t working,” Springett says. “People thought it was an amazing idea, and that’s still the feedback we’re getting. People are emailing me and saying, ‘Thanks for all the good work you did.’”

The loss of the co-op highlights a worsening problem in northwestern Ontario: the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. Experts say that the federal government needs to do more to promote food security.

Nutritionist Ivan Ho says that, ideally, food costs should account for 10 to 15 per cent of a family’s income. In the Thunder Bay District, families earning less than the median income have to pay “well above” that percentage; some dedicate more than a third of their income to food. “Food becomes that flexible cost where you make exceptions here and there,” he says. “You push aside the healthy food for feeling full, and those tend to be less helpful items. You skip meals.” Over time, a lack of healthy food can contribute to chronic disease, mental-health issues, and increased health-care costs.

Julie Slack, the Northwestern Health Unit’s acting manager of chronic-disease prevention, says that the problem is unique to the north. “We’re dependent on getting food from the bigger hubs, so Toronto being really far away from us, it costs a lot of money to get it up here,” she says. “Lots of people can’t afford it. Parallel to that problem is that our local farmers and growers — who are doing their best trying to make a living from farming — it costs more to be able to live and produce this food, so, for us to support them, we need to pay more money.”

Eric Melillo, the Conservative candidate for Kenora, published a paper on food security for the Northern Policy Institute in 2018. In it, he proposes a guaranteed income, writing that it is “worth considering a resumption of such a program in Northern Ontario.”

He also suggests that increased support for food co-ops could lead to price reductions. “When not operating for-profit, there is less incentive for a grocery store to raise prices far beyond marginal costs,” the report reads. “On its own, such an initiative would not address the socioeconomic issues that contribute to food insecurity. However, as part of a broader food security approach, this could further help to lower the price tag of food items.” (Melillo did not respond to interview requests from TVO.org.)

Bruce Hyer, the Green party candidate in Thunder Bay–Superior North, agrees with the thrust of Melillo’s report, adding that municipalities, rather than provinces, should receive transfer payments from the federal government. “We need a guaranteed livable income rated to the region you live in to make sure nobody slips through the cracks,” he says.

Marcus Powlowski, the Liberal candidate in Thunder Bay–Rainy River, says that local food will be covered in his party’s $187 billion infrastructure plan and points to the $50 million Local Food Infrastructure Fund the government announced last summer. “I would think one of the things the cities of the future would want to have would be local food,” he says.

On Monday, the NDP released its New Deal for Northern Ontario. Under it, northern Ontario’s regional development agency, FedNor, would become a stand-alone agency, and agriculture would be defined as a primary sector and so qualify for federal support. Thunder Bay–Rainy River NDP candidate Yuk-Sem Won says that, for her party, supporting transportation infrastructure is key.

“We need to invest in the local food system to make it accessible, to support things like food hubs, the networks and the regional markets,” Won says. “They take our agricultural economy and make it accessible for the people here, as well as in the northern regions. We need to support that and to get what we already have in our backyards out to all of our neighbours.”

Erin Beagle, the executive director of the Thunder Bay-based agriculture group Roots to Harvest, says that the loss of Cloverbelt, as well as the uncertain future of the area’s only abattoir, indicates that regional food-distribution systems are struggling. “There’s no doubt we don’t have the infrastructure we need in the north to be able to produce, process, and distribute our food,” she says. "Food insecurity is a poverty issue. Plain and simple. Food insecurity in the north is a distribution and supply issue."

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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