Aaron Watson/The Canadian Press/AP

Access to affordable, healthy food in Canada’s north nears crisis

Nearly 70 percent of Inuit preschoolers don't have consistent access to food, new report says

Here are grocery prices in some remote communities in Canada's north: $10 for a carton of milk, $28 for a cabbage, $65 for a chicken.

Leesee Papatsie, a resident of Iqaluit, the capital city of the vast northern territory of Nunavut, has seen it all — and documented some of the more budget-busting prices on a website.

The 46-year-old Inuit mother of five, with two children still living at home, said that while prices fluctuate, she spends between CAD$500 and $600 (US$450 to $540) on groceries per week.

Papatsie says those living outside Iqaluit can have an even harder time finding healthy food at reasonable prices.

"For us it's OK, because me and my husband both work, but people still do have a hard time up here," said Papatsie, who helped organize a protest movement against the high prices.

"Families are still hungry, kids go hungry daily, parents don't eat so their children can," she said.

Access to nutritious, affordable food has long been a challenge in the Inuit communities of Canada's north, located in some of the most remote and sparsely populated regions in the world. In Nunavut, one of Canada's three northern territories, there are 31,900 people living in an area about the size of Mexico.

The food problem is reaching crisis levels, and the evidence shows it's getting worse, according to a report released Thursday by the Council of Canadian Academies.

Nearly 70 percent of Inuit preschoolers ages 3 to 5 lived in food-insecure households, the study found.

Across Canada's north — an area that includes Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunatsiavut (an autonomous area in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador) — the average annual cost of groceries for a family with children was $19,760 in 2007–08, yet 49 percent of Inuit adults earned less than $20,000 (US$18,036). 

Nunavut, in particular, has the highest documented rate of food insecurity for any indigenous population living in a developed country.

A critical juncture

"Evidence from a variety of sources concludes that food insecurity among northern aboriginal peoples is a problem that requires urgent attention to address and mitigate the serious impacts it has on health and well-being," the report said.

The cause of food insecurity — the lack of consistent access to an adequate amount of healthy food due to cost or other factors — is complex.

It is more than the high cost of flying food into isolated communities far from distribution centers in the south of Canada.

There has been a gradual turning away from the high-quality food that indigenous people once procured for themselves, such as this seal hunted in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.
Cara Loverock/Council of Canadian Academies

Environmental and cultural as well as economic factors are in play, the researchers said.

"We're really at a critical juncture when it comes to food insecurity in the north," said Prof. David Natcher, director of the Indigenous Land Management Institute at the University of Saskatchewan. 

"The trends that we're experiencing, some action needs to be taken."

The problem has come under greater scrutiny as the Canadian government looks at developing the north. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made oil and gas exploration in the Arctic a priority

But according to Natcher, food insecurity won't be solved solely by resource-driven economic growth.

"Jobs alone for certain segments of the population aren't going to address the issues surrounding food insecurity," he said.

Natcher said there a new set of challenges facing communities that go beyond the ones confronting those with populations who lived as hunter-gatherers for centuries.

"You have a whole historical legacy of colonial intrusion, you have forced relocations, you have a changing educational system and economic system that in many ways were imposed on aboriginal communities," he said.

"I think many of those challenges have been compounded by some of these legacies and leave these communities in a vulnerable state."

Everything is on the table

Also, there's been gradual turn away from high-quality "country food" which includes seals, fish and caribou, to store-bought food, said Harriet Kuhnlein, who chaired the research project.

That's partly because of the cost of hunting. Only those who can afford a snowmobile, gas and hunting gear are likely to get out on the land.

Meanwhile, the most affordable food in the store is often heavily processed and low in nutrition.

The result, said Kuhnlein, is a rise in health problems.

“There's increasing obesity and along with that comes an increase in diabetes and cardiovascular disease," said Kuhnlein, a professor in human nutrition at Montreal's McGill University.

For its part, the Canadian government has a program in place intended to address the high cost of groceries. Known as Nutrition North, it provides a subsidy to retailers in the region, who are then supposed to pass on lower costs to consumers.

But the high prices remain, and it's difficult for shoppers to know how much they are saving.

In the short term, the researchers said more food banks and soup kitchens would help alleviate the problem.

Over time, they said all levels of government, along with non-governmental organizations and local communities, need to address the problem together.

Everything is on the table, from improved school snack programs to greenhouses and community gardens.

"Canada is in a perfect position to address these challenges," Natcher said.

"Unlike many other countries who are dealing with food insecurity within their population, Canada has the resources and capacity to address these issues. And it's a collective responsibility."

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