Food. How important is it? So important that many of us spend hours thinking about our next meal, and rarely contemplate how it arrives in our grocery stores or restaurants. We acknowledge as a society, that for some accessing food is difficult and we may donate to food banks or even help out at a local shelter. But, what would we do if choosing food over shelter was an actual reality for us? Or, if our hunger meant that our children could eat? It seems impossible that these types of choices exist in Canada. But, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis adults across the north experience five to six times higher levels of food insecurity than the Canadian national average. How can hunger happen in Canada one of the world’s wealthiest nations? In this essay, I will explore the reasons that food insecurity exists in Northern Canada by examining why communities in Canada’s territory, Nunavut, are the most vulnerable, as well as what food insecurity is, and potential solutions.
In 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) held the first World Food Summit. This meeting was used to evaluate global efforts of increasing food security and also, to understand contributing factors leading to food insecurity. At this event a definition of food insecurity was created and approved by the Government of Canada: Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Canadas issues with food insecurity came about in Canadas Action Plan for Food Security in 1998 that built ….on a wide range of existing international commitments which affect food security, including agreements on international trade and environmental issues, conventions on human rights, social development, education, housing and urban development (Agr.gc.ca). Canadas pledge included a series of priorities that the government would act to ensure food security for every Canadian, including low-income families, single mothers and fathers, and Aboriginal peoples (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit). Food insecurity does not always mean that the food is not available, but rather it recognizes that the means of acquiring food is a challenge, and that food people have may not be healthy or nutritious.
Nunavut is home to the majority of Canadas Inuit Population. Around 60 or so years ago, the Canadian Inuit were self-reliant people who depend mostly upon traditional food for livelihood. While there may have been periods of food insecurity within the culture in the past, it was not documented by the government until recently. Types of food relied on by the Inuit were hunted or gathered from the land, common to the climate in the area, including things as narwhal, ringed seal, and fish (arctic char), caribou, and berries. Northern Canada is filled with smaller communities that go from west to east and as high as the Arctic Circle. Nunavut itself is a vast region without a highway transportation infrastructure system connecting it to the rest of Canada; it’s only accessed by plane, ship or by an ice road in the winter. To ship food to northern outposts in Nunavut is a massive and expensive undertaking. Some areas are only accessible by barge in the summer when the ice melts. Planes are also used to ship goods to the northern communities and can do so year-round at a high cost, considering fuel, labor, and maintenance. An example of the cost of food includes a kilo of celery for ten dollars a bunch. Or, a head of cabbage may cost $28 and a pack of diapers may cost nearly $74, compared to $1.50 for cabbage and $35 for diapers in southern Canada. Transportation is not the only reason why the groceries are so highly-priced; the infrastructure in many of the communities in Nunavut is expensive to run, a typical store in the north will use $686,000 worth of electricity in a year. This is extremely high when you compare it to stores in the southern part of Canada. Also, this is a lack of space to store extra goods and food. Lack of storage makes it difficult to anticipate changing needs over winter and challenging to arrange for enough supplies to last until the summer. Another challenge the people of Nunavut face is unemployment. According to Statistics Nunavut, the unemployment rate is about 15.1 percent. Therefore, the high rate of unemployment, with the high cost of food and the high cost of infrastructure means not only that stores are being forced to up their prices, but also inhabitants are being forced to choose between necessities like electricity or having food in a territory that is freezing most of the year.
Today, many of the Inuit population in Nunavut suffer from physical and mental conditions, due to: Dramatic changes with regards to traditional nutrition (Thibeault 154). There is considerable evidence that many health problems that are experienced by Aboriginal peoples are related to diet; they include anemia, dental caries, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. As previously mentioned in this paper, a relatively recent reliance on market food is the key factor. The market-based foods are sugary, high in refined carbohydrates, fatty and have low-nutritional value. Also, these are the foods that the body craves. Processed foods also vary greatly from the traditional diet, and especially the Inuit, as traditional foods are largely protein-based.
Northern Canadians face high levels of food insecurity. Particularly among First Nations, Metis and Inuit populations, a combination of low income, the high cost of store-bought foods, and decreased access to traditional foods has contributed to levels of food insecurity that are nothing short from a trip to the public health emergency. Whether one approaches the issue from a moral, sensible, or rights-based perspective, it is clear that more needs to be done to increase food security in northern Canada. Many programs exist to try and help increase and support food security in Nunavut as well as the rest of northern Canada. Some are federally operated and funded, while others are grass-roots efforts, run by locals who know and understand the challenges in the area. For example, The Nunavut Food Security Coalition has developed six areas of focus for food security, including country food, market food, local food production, life skills, programs, and community initiatives, and policy and legislation. Community members have banded together to reduce food insecurity as well and had some success. Ideas such as community food banks have helped those without money access food; there are soup kitchens that open twice a week in certain northern communities to feed those in need most; and, certain communities keep communal freezers where country food is stored safely and can be accessed by any community member.