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Reserves hunger for fresh food

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FLIN FLON -- Amid the ramshackle houses, rampant unemployment and utter desperation on the reserves of northern Manitoba, the unavailability of healthy food might seem like a trifling concern.

In reality, ensuring a fresh, affordable supply of produce would be a small but important victory in reversing the Third World conditions that are the shame of this province.

The huge cost disparity between groceries on-reserve and off is well documented.

There are reports of four-litre jugs of milk selling for more than $20, heads of cauliflower ringing in at $8 or more and bags of potatoes retailing at three or four times what the rest of us pay.

The cost of shipping time-sensitive, temperature-controlled goods to communities that lack year-round roads is astounding, something Jonathan McGavock knows well.

McGavock, associate professor at the University of Manitoba's faculty of medicine, was part of two experiments that shipped large volumes of fresh, healthy food to remote Garden Hill.

In the first of these farmers markets, in 2010, about 1,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables, milk and whole-grain products were to be brought in on the regularly scheduled flight.

Unfortunately, the plane was already full of cargo, meaning the food had to sit at an airport for two extra days before it could reach Garden Hill.

"We were at the mercy of the airlines, who are at the mercy of weight loads on their planes," McGavock says.

When a second farmers market was held in 2011, this time with 4,000 pounds of food, a plane was chartered to assure freshness. This nearly doubled the cost of the goods at their destination but did little to dampen demand.

"We sold 4,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables in probably two hours," McGavock says.

The Garden Hill experiments failed to demonstrate, as hoped, that regular farmers markets could be a sustainable option for reserves.

But they did prove that in communities where chips and pop constitute a routine meal, people will buy healthy food when given the opportunity.

McGavock sees "a desperate need for more fruits and vegetables at more reasonable prices." If that were available on reserves, "the uptake would be very high."

It's not that the federal government, the caretaker of First Nations, is oblivious. It runs a $53.9-million subsidy program that supports suppliers and retailers to keep the price of food, particularly healthy food, down in remote northern communities.

For its part, the Manitoba government has the northern health foods initiative, which supports locally driven projects such as community gardens and small livestock operations.

Both measures help. Still, in communities where most families rely on welfare and where the cost of everything, not just food, is extravagant, it's far too difficult to put nutritious meals on the table.

Some wonder whether the Northern stores that serve reserves are overcharging on already costly produce. That's a subjective area of debate, and without (or even with) access to their private financial data, who's to say?

What we do know is that poor diets are a major cause of the diabetes epidemic on reserves and of the poorer general health we see among First Nations residents.

What's more, it's been proven that what we eat affects how we act. Some researchers put poor diet among the factors behind criminality.

You might remember the school in Appleton, Wis., featured in the documentary Supersize Me. Staff found that serving healthy food led to a steep drop in adverse behaviours among students.

So is the lack of reasonably priced, nutritious foods the sole reason reserves have glaring health, crime and youth problems?

No, but it's part of the puzzle.

Last month, Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard, a physician, called on the NDP government to homogenize milk prices across Manitoba, as it does for alcohol.

That our leaders apparently are OK with First Nations paying double or triple the average price for milk and healthy foods, but insist the price of booze be standardized, tells us that we have a long way to go.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 A13

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