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Eating on the Edge of the World Is Expensive

In the remote reaches of northern Canada, the high prices of flown-in food have left many Inuit communities struggling to put enough food on the table. The solution might mean a return to tradition.
November 10, 2014, 9:12pm
Photo via Flickr user Alan Sim

The US's northern neighbor is an incredibly productive agricultural region: The fifth-largest exporter in the world, Canada sends homegrown foods such as canola oil, legumes, durum wheat, and, of course, maple syrup all over the globe. But in spite of this abundance, an increasing number of Canadians are going hungry.

According to an annual report on hunger released last week by Food Banks Canada, Canadians' use of local food banks has skyrocketed over the past few years, climbing by 25 percent since 2008. While the country's economy has mostly bounced back from the global recession that took hold that year, a lingering effect of the downturn has been an incredibly high level of food insecurity in Canada that's all the more striking in light of its status as a G8 nation. In 2012, four million Canadians—including more than a million children—experienced some level of food insecurity.

Nunavut families pay, on average, more than twice what the average Canadian pays for groceries.

The new reports on hunger in Canada have created a splash in the media there, with many local newspapers writing op-eds in response to the alarming figures. But for Canada's far northern Inuit communities, the problem of rampant food insecurity isn't news. For decades, residents of Nunavut—a huge, isolated, and sparsely populated region of eastern Canada that's just across the bay from Greenland—have faced extreme barriers to getting enough food to eat. Because of the high cost of flying food in to grocery stores in the remote territory, Nunavut families pay, on average, more than twice what the average Canadian pays for groceries. In 2014, the average price of a two-pound chicken was $16; a 5.5-pound bag of flour cost $13. The price of celery was 287 percent higher than in the rest of Canada; sugar's price was 192 percent higher.

"A lot of people struggle," said Leesee Papatsie, a mother of five who lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital city (pop. 6,669). "Not day-by-day, but meal-by-meal."

Papatsie is the founder of Feeding My Family, a Facebook group she started in 2012 to call attention to the sky-high prices and low quality of the foods flown into Nunavut's 28 communities. She said the group has more than 21,000 members, many of them mothers who can barely afford to feed themselves, let alone their children.

"We've gotten a lot of Facebook posts from mothers that say, 'I don't eat so my kids can eat,' or 'I take my kids to my cousin's house so they can have something to eat,' Papatsie said.

In Nunavut, seven in ten Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes. That statistic caught the attention of Brian Kingston, one of the authors of the 2013 report "Hunger in Nunavut: Local Food for Healthier Communities."

"After coming across that statistic we knew that we had to bring attention to this pressing problem," Kingston said.

As Kingston explained, the increase in hunger in Inuit communities in Nunavut can be traced to the massive cultural shift that began there in the 1950s, when, as he and his coauthors write in their report, "the Cold War turned southern Canadian and American sights north for reasons of defense and sovereignty." Lured by new jobs in construction, the Inuit—traditionally a nomadic hunting and fishing population that followed the migratory patterns of game such as caribou, seals and narwhals—increasingly settled near the Distant Early Warning (DEW) sites that were built to detect incoming Soviet bombers.

"In a very short period of time, the Inuit went from hunting and gathering to living in permanent communities far away from familiar animal migration patterns," Kingston said. "This began a shift away from traditional diets to store-bought food, much of it high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats."

The results of this move away from hunting, Kingston and his coauthors found, is clear: of the Nunavut households the team surveyed, 75 percent of homes without an active hunter in the family were food insecure.

Because of the prohibitive cost and low nutritional quality of flown-in foods, Kingston and his team recommend that Nunavuk families incorporate more local, or so-called "country foods," into their diets. It's an idea that many families are interested in, Papatsie said, particularly because many of them are still unfamiliar with most produce, which is not a traditional part of the Inuit diet.

"We're not used to eating fruits and vegetables, because they've only been around for us for the past 50 years," she explained. "There's a lot of people that don't go hunting today who would love to go hunting and would love to eat the country food."

But as Papatsie pointed out, hunting is expensive, too: a set of all-season gear, which can include snowmobiles, ATVs, boats and arms can total more than $55,000.

The federal government has stepped in, Papatsie said, but it's not doing enough. In 2011, it introduced the widely criticized Nutrition North program, which subsidizes the food purchases of grocery stores that sign up with the program. The stores are supposed to pass on the savings to the consumer, but Papatsie said they don't.

"If the federal government wanted to help, they would find a way to help," she said. "They're a lot more concerned about the sovereignty of the land and its people."