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Thunder Bay grocers seek positive change through supplying healthy food to North

Thursday May 3, 2012

“What draws me to this business after more than 23 years is that I love serving people. As my brother and I lead this family business, we want to make a difference in this world,” says David Stezenko, co-owner along with his brother Dan of Thunder Bay’s Quality Market, an independent grocery store.

When David met with Grand Chief Stan Beardy of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) three years ago and learned of the health problems in remote northern communities caused by poor nutrition due to the unavailability of fresh food, he wanted to do something.

“Diabetes has become part of the fabric of normal life. We’ve been told that in some of these communities, every second house has a wheelchair ramp. When you’re forty, you get insulin. When you’re fifty, you lose a leg. It’s tragic!” he says.

A major reason for the health problems in northern communities is that nutritious foods are often spoiled by the time they reach their destinations. Even when healthy foods arrive in acceptable conditions, prices are many times higher than in cities in the south. So when Stezenko learned that the government was looking for southern food suppliers for its Nutrition North Canada initiative, launched in 2010, he wanted to be part of it.

“When you really start to get a picture about the living conditions, the eating conditions, the pricing and the lack of availability of fresh healthy food, your heart breaks,” Stezenko says. “This is the greatest nation in the world and yet we have third world conditions just a stone’s throw from one of our major cities. Why is it okay for us to let this continue?”

NAN called Quality Market in January 2011, inviting the store to apply to become one of the 33 southern suppliers for the new Nutrition North Canada Subsidy Program for remote First Nations. The Nutrition North Program replaced the old Food Mail Program that used Canada Post to ship food to remote communities. Under the Nutrition North Program, food is shipped from specific suppliers directly to eligible communities.

When Quality Market applied to become one of the 33 Southern Suppliers for the program, government officials expressed doubt about whether a small family business would be able to do the amount of work and reporting requirements involved.

They didn’t know the Stezenkos. David and Dan’s work ethic and commitment to excellence have won them numerous awards. Most importantly, they had the trust of Grand Chief Beardy, who wrote “a compelling letter” to the government officials expressing his confidence in them.

“The letter reiterated that we were willing to put in the ton of work required, and that the malnutrition needs in the north were huge. Apparently that letter made all the difference in the world,” Stezenko says.

“We promised the Grand Chief that we would charge the same prices that we do in Thunder Bay, plus a fee of 7-9% to cover the cost of preparing and packaging the food, and the cost of maintaining our system,” says Stezenko. “We made this commitment about pricing because there are so many companies that have taken advantage of people in the north. In many cases they charged high prices because they could.”

At this point, only communities that used to participate in the old Food Mail program are fully eligible for NNC, as determined by the federal government. The fully eligible communities are Attawapiskat, Bearkskin Lake, Big Trout Lake, Fort Albany, Peawanuck, Muskrat Dam, Kashechewan and Fort Severn. The subsidies are for healthy foods only and range from $2.60 per kilogram in Fort Severn to $1.30 in Bearskin Lake.

Communities that participated in the old program on a smaller scale are only partially eligible for the subsidy. These include Kasabonika, Kingfisher Lake, Pikangikum, Sachigo Lake, Weagamow Lake and Wunnummin Lake. The subsidy for these communities is only five cents a kilogram on healthy foods. The hope is that as the program becomes more established, the government will eventually make it available to all northern communities.

To make ordering food easier for customers, Quality Market has launched Thunder Bay’s first online system, which is user-friendly, and can be used by individuals, businesses and community groups.

The True North Community Cooperative is the only other Nutrition North provider in Thunder Bay. True North, Quality Market and NAN have formed a collaborative relationship to bring healthy, fresh food to the north. Stezenko believes that the potential of this partnership is enormous.

On a personal note, Stezenko expresses his gratitude about being a part of Nutrition North.
“We have the opportunity to be a piece of the puzzle that could help bring restored health to this nation,” he says.

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