In a northern grocery store, a package of 20 mandarin orange fruit cups will set you back $51.49. Strawberries cost $14.39. This according to a series of online photos, posted to the Feeding My Family Facebook group – a public forum to raise awareness about the high cost of food in Nunavut. The photographic evidence shows shelves of overpriced food (compared to the rest of Canada) except for when the shelves offer no food at all.
That’s the reality for most communities across Canada’s North, where high costs (sometimes five to six times higher than the Canadian average), low incomes, climate change and a shift away from subsistence hunting can make it hard for people to feed themselves.
However, a number of community-led projects, as well as government programs and other organizations, are working to find solutions to a problem that’s reached crisis levels in places like Nunavut. Here are some of the food security projects happening in Canada’s North.
This grassroots organization started in 2012 by two Nunavut residents, Eric Joamie of Pangnirtung, Nunavut and Leesee Papatsie of Iqaluit, uses a public Facebook group, Feeding My Family, to raise awareness about the high cost of food in Nunavut by providing a forum for northerners to discuss their personal struggles with food in their communities, compare food prices, brainstorm solutions, provide immediate help to those in need through spin-off programs, such as the Food for Nunavut Group, and organize peaceful protests.
The group, which now has 21,000 members, hopes to influence government policy-makers to find better ways to lower the cost of food and encourage retailers to provide more competitive prices while improving food quality, which in many instances is past the expiration date or spoiled.
“What motivates me is that kids are going hungry today, now,” said Leesee Papatsie to the CBC in November 2016.
This Government of Canada subsidy program was launched in 2011, replacing the Food Mail program, to provide fresh healthy foods to isolated northern communities. Working with suppliers in southern Canada and retailers in the north, the program has invested about $60 million per year since it began subsidizing the high costs of transporting perishable foods (fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, meat and cheese) and country foods produced in the north (Arctic char, musk-ox and caribou) by air to northern communities. According to the program’s website, “the cost of a food basket for a family of four has dropped approximately 5 percent or $94 per month.” However, critics say even with the price drop, food in the north is still too expensive.
“Nutrition North has an impossible task. You lower the cost to this level, but people can't get to that level. People still go hungry,” said Brian Tattuinee of Iqaluit to the CBC in September 2016. A report released in 2014 by Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson said that the program has no way of determining whether its subsidies were actually being passed on to the customers and some of the foods subsidized by the program could not be considered healthy (ice cream, processed cheese spread, etc.). In response to these criticisms, the program has engaged in a series of community consultations from May 30 to December 9, 2016.
Located just outside Dawson City, Yukon, the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Teaching and Working Farm or Nänkäk nishi tr'ënòshe gha hëtr'ohǫh'ąy, meaning “land where we learn to grow our food” in Hän, provides sustainable fresh produce to the community and instruction to students on essential homestead farming skills, such as seed production, planning techniques, marketing and sales and basic carpentry. The farm, a partnership between the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation and Yukon College with funding support from the Yukon’s Training Policy Committee, sits on a 45-metre by 22-metre plot of land with plans for expansion, which will include more growing space, greenhouses, livestock and plots for traditional plants and berries.
In the spring and summer of 2016, the farm and school saw its first crop of 20 students, ranging in age from 16 to 64 mostly from the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation, and its harvest included potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, peas, kale and corn, supplemented by students’ individual research plots with beans, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts and sunflowers.
“I recall back to when my grandpa used to talk about hard times. It’s about being prepared if those hard times come,” Chief Kevin McGinty said to students at the Selkirk First Nation's net ice-fishing camp from January 29 to February 1, 2016 on Tatlamun Lake near Pelly Crossing, Yukon. The camp is part of a larger project, which ran from July 2015 to March 2016, and brought elders and youth together to share Indigenous knowledge about fishing for salmon and, in the wake of a changing climate, managing the waterways to sustain this threatened traditional food source.
A joint partnership between the Selkirk First Nation and the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research, the project included numerous youth training workshops, such as the winter fishing camp experience, a review of literature about climate change and the mental health of Indigenous youth in Northern Canada, a documentary (above) and fish camp guidebook, Keeping Our Traditions at the Fish Camps: Our Ancestors' Gift to Our Youth.
This project works to identify, promote and support healthy lifestyles in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. It is led by the Arctic Institute for Community-Based Research and funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Innovation Strategy (2013-2017)Through many different initiatives, such as cooking classes, youth leadership and mental wellbeing workshops and community gardener gatherings, to name a few, the project is creating a strong network of people committed to addressing northern food insecurity.
One such initiative is the Healthy Living Inventory and Mapping Tool, which has plotted existing healthy eating and active living programs, such as food banks, school breakfast and lunch programs, community gardens and traditional food workshops, across both territories to allow program coordinators, recreation leaders and others access to what’s happening in their communities.