Four years ago, I was on a flight to a remote Manitoba First Nations reservation. In the space where there used to be a passenger seat next to the pilot was stacked 432 boxes of potato chips. In the rear cargo space were hundreds more. They were being flown to this reserve, a mere two-hour flight north of Winnipeg on Lake Winnipeg, for the community store, owned by a large national company. The regular passenger fare on that flight was approximately $350.00. It was more profitable for the airline to ship the snacks than carry a person!
But the real point is the cost to the consumer of these snacks. Because of the light weight, the grocery store felt that it could justify shipping junk food to the reserve by air. In 1986, Berens River and Poplar River reservations were served, in the summer, by a barge that ferried goods and vehicles in along Lake Winnipeg. That helped to reduce shipping costs of fuel (diesel for generators, gas for trucks). However, that barge discontinued operation some years later. That only left winter road supply lines and air cargo. Both were exceptionally costly. In 2018, most of the East Road was completed, connecting those two first nations communities to the outside world. Still, even on these accessible reservations, food cost remains exceptionally high.
One of the false claims made by many people unfamiliar with the high cost of food in remote First nations communities is that “we” are giving them too much, and that the money they get is more than they need. Those people often point, as well, to the high incidence of obesity and diabetes as proof that First Nations people in these communities are choosing to live an unhealthy, indolent and indulgent lifestyle. Yet, the reality is the polar (no pun intended) opposite for northern communities such as Berens River.
Some of the cheapest food products in the Berens River stores are snacks such as chips and candy bars. These also are the cheapest to ship into the community and represent some of the cheapest foods. Then, there is relative cost. A four-liter container of milk costs four times as much as a two-liter container of pop. The soda provides instant energy and a feeling of fullness. Same with the chips and chocolate bars. And, the snacks don’t require refrigeration in homes that often do not have a refrigerator that works.
As a consequence, the diet of many of the residents consists of junk food, leading to obesity and illness.
While a typical food basket may cost $146 in Winnipeg in 2018, for instance, it was $366 in Berens River. All other costs of living are similarly disproportionate. So, if a typical family of six, living at the poverty line in Winnipeg, needs $53,000 per year to survive, that same family in Berens River would need $133,000 per year!
It is this disconnect that many of us have between our world and our perception of how we compare to others that limits our ability to empathize with those in dire circumstances, such as those in our First Nations communities. Poverty is not solely a phenomenon of underdeveloped countries. It exists here, in our own back yard, and we don’t have to fly far to experience it.