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LEESEE PAPATSIE STANDS in her kitchen, surveying the groceries that will feed her family for a week. In the half-dozen or so bags her husband brought home, there are several packages of meat, a few cans of juice from concentrate, a bunch of fresh celery, brussels sprouts and a bag of potato patties. There are Eggo waffles, frozen french fries, canned soup, a sack of oranges and some chicken. The bill totalled $513.90.
That’s just a regular trip to the supermarket, says Papatsie, a mother of five and grandmother of three. She lives in Iqaluit, a community of about 7,200 that sits between the edge of the tundra and the Arctic waters off Baffin Island. There are three hotels, two supermarkets, a few churches and schools, a hospital and a grocery store with a Tim Hortons attached, but Nunavut’s capital city still has the feel of a small town. Across the inlet, which is for most of the year a stunning expanse of frozen white ice, you can see the airport and the dump.
Iqaluit is an isolated place, and when it comes to food, this can be a problem. There are three ways for the people who live here to access enough to eat. They hunt it; the Arctic ecosystem has sustained the Inuit people for millennia. If they have the means, they pay to ship dry goods north on what is known as the sealift — boats that travel from when the ice breaks around the end of June to when the waters freeze again in October. Or retailers, hotels and individuals bring up food on the few flights that arrive daily — which, after factoring in the costs of transportation and storage, can easily double the prices of some grocery items.
“A lot of families have a hard time putting food on the table because they can’t afford food,” says Papatsie. Forty-one percent of the population in the North depends on social assistance. The cost of living is higher here than in most other places in Canada: Electricity costs more, as do rent, heating and clothes as well as groceries. According to the Inuit Child Health Survey, seven out of 10 Inuit preschoolers in Nunavut don’t have enough healthy food to eat. Last year, research published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health found that the problem of hunger is so severe that school-aged Inuit children at the northern tip of Quebec are on average 2 cm shorter than the average child in Canada who eats three square meals a day.
Across North America, there is growing discussion about places where it’s hard to find fresh, healthy, affordable food; terms like food desert and food swamp have been used to identify communities where access is a problem. In Canada, when people cannot afford to purchase the food they need to eat, they experience what experts here call “food insecurity.”
“There are four million Canadians living in food-insecure households,” says Nick Saul, CEO and president of Community Food Centres Canada. “People who are unsure where their next meal will come from, or who are skipping meals so their kids can eat — this happens a lot in this country.” Nearly 13 percent of Canadian households don’t have enough healthy food. For families with children, it’s even higher — one out of every six Canadian kids lives in a food-insecure household. But in Nunavut, the rate of food insecurity is 45.2 percent, by far the highest in the country.
Four years ago, inspired by a man picketing his local supermarket over high prices and expired food, Papatsie founded a Facebook group called Feeding My Family to draw attention to the difficulties of doing just that. Within days of her starting the group, dozens of people were sharing their experiences of food insecurity in the North: photos of $12 bacon and $53 pork butt; tales of beef jerky mouldering in its bag; mothers posting that they were “sick of buying old unhealthy food!”
When Papatsie travelled to a conference in Ireland two years ago to speak with people from other indigenous groups about food security in their countries, “some people didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me that this was happening in Canada,” she says. “It’s one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.”
WHEN YOU NEVER HAVE TO WORRY about whether you’ll eat dinner, it’s hard not to take food for granted. Food is everywhere. Run out of milk? Pick some up at the drugstore and, while you’re at it, grab a bag of salad or baby carrots. Getting gas instead? You’ll find milk there and maybe yogurt or eggs. When you do go to the supermarket, not only are the shelves stocked, but there’s a growing array of prepared foods too — so you’re covered if you don’t feel like cooking and don’t want to call for pizza again. In most of the country, food is cheap. Canadians on average spend roughly 9 percent of their household income on food, compared with Italians, who spend 14 percent and, at the higher end of the spectrum, Kenyans or Pakistanis, who spend 45 percent.
But low-income Canadians — nearly 14 percent of the population — spend at least half of their money on food. In Nunavut, that comes from a median household income of just over $65,000, the lowest in the country and nearly $10,000 less than the national average. And here, people rely not only on food from the grocery store but also on food from the wild, or what locals in the North call “country food.” Inuit families, who make up more than 80 percent of the territory’s population, have always been hunters and fishers. One 28-year-old Iqaluit resident said that until about 15 years ago, you could easily hunt caribou at the edge of the town. He described it as like shooting fish in a barrel.
But a combination of factors, including climate change and shifts in the populations of wild animals, mean hunters have to travel farther to find game — if they find any at all. Travel is costly too: You need money for equipment and fuel for your Ski-Doo. And in an effort to conserve wildlife populations, the governments of both Canada and Nunavut have imposed hunting limits on species like the narwhal whale. This year, after a dramatic drop in the caribou population, the territorial government banned the caribou hunt on Baffin Island.
Because fewer people have access to traditional foods, they must increasingly rely on store-bought food at higher prices. In Iqaluit, it costs $10.79 for a 4-L bag of milk, $5.49 for a loaf of bread and $8.29 for a 680-g box of cornflakes. If the food has to be shipped farther into the territory, prices rise even more. Then there’s the issue of quality. “That’s another common thing in the North: stale bread,” says Papatsie, whose Facebook group has been flooded with posts from people throughout Nunavut lamenting the quality of the food on offer at their stores.
At its roundtables across the territory, the Nunavut Food Security Coalition — which brings together government departments, Inuit organizations, NGOs and the private sector to improve food access — has fielded plenty of complaints about rotten groceries. Sara Statham, territorial food security coordinator and a member of the coalition, says there’s a suspicion that food shipped north is old to begin with, then further damaged by exposure to the cold weather. Carrots are a storage crop and keep for months — so “how is it that they get here and they are rotten?”
AT 9 A.M., AS SOON AS THE DOOR at the Tukisigiarvik community centre opens, visitors begin to arrive. Skill-building classes are available in the warm one-storey house: You can learn how to make bannock, traditional Inuit tools and sealskin boots. But for many of the men and women, the biggest draw is the food. “This place helps out a lot of people,” says Lyta Josephie, a carver who comes most days for a morning meal.
Tukisigiarvik isn’t the only place in town providing people with sustenance. There’s a soup kitchen where volunteers offer lunch every day and a food bank serving about 1,000 people each month; 42 percent of its clients are under 18. Schools have breakfast programs funded by the government. And some grocery prices are subsidized by the federal government’s Nutrition North Canada program, which replaced the Food Mail Program in 2011.
Under Nutrition North, retailers are given money toward the cost of shipping foods into the territory. The subsidy, however, extends only to healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, eggs and a few shelf-stable products. At the supermarket in Iqaluit, signs declare that without the subsidy, the $10.79 bag of milk would cost $20.39. However, many northerners say the program isn’t working to reduce hunger — and some say that stores are even making money off the program by not reducing prices as much as possible. “The prices are still too high for the vast majority of people to afford,” says Statham. Locals are also frustrated that once-subsidized products, such as breakfast cereal or processed cheese, no longer qualify under the program.
That means families and friends rely deeply on one another. Sharing the food you have has long been part of Inuit culture — it’s how people here survived in one of the world’s harshest climates. A few years ago, after graduating from university, policy analyst Tracy Wood moved from Montreal to her mother’s hometown of Iqaluit. “Before I got my job, I went thousands of dollars into debt paying for food on my credit card,” she says. Now she uses her paycheque to feed the members of her family who aren’t as fortunate. “If an Inuk has two slices of bread, she is not going to keep one of them,” Wood says. Over at Papatsie’s house, you’ll typically find at least one or two friends or relatives sitting down with the family for a meal. “If we didn’t share our food, there would be starvation in the North,” she says.
For Saul and the people he works with at Community Food Centres Canada, the problem of food insecurity must in part be solved with education and advocacy — not to mention better opportunities for more Canadians. His organization is helping create a national network of community centres where people can learn how to cook healthy meals, grow vegetable gardens and advocate for better food policies in their communities, which includes getting people to the voting booth so their voices are heard. “If you give people options,” Saul says, “they will gravitate toward better food.”
People need more options in the North too. In May 2014, after more than two years of research, the Nunavut Food Security Coalition released its action plan for reducing hunger and promoting food security. The recommendations were comprehensive, ranging from broad country food initiatives (more infrastructure for hunters; sustainable commercialization of traditional foods) to specific local changes (improving grocery store layouts to promote healthy choices; reintroducing home economics in schools so students can learn how to prepare healthy food). In another report on the Nutrition North program, released in March, the coalition’s 15 recommendations included raising the subsidy for cooking staples like flour and oils and adding a subsidy for nutritious dehydrated options in all four food groups.
But to really address food insecurity, the coalition found, officials need to invest in areas like housing, education and employment. Residents need better access to language and literacy skills training. Governments need to introduce policy that supports traditional livelihoods, and places adequate incomes within reach. Promoting what the coalition calls “a strong social safety net” isn’t an overnight solution — these measures take time. But they are a step toward ensuring that everyone can have enough healthy food to eat in every part of this country.
This story was produced by the Chatelaine editorial team with no direction or input from the sponsor.