Feeding My Family - Food Insecurity in the North

by Susan MacVittie

When Leesee Papatsie started the Facebook group, Feeding My Family, to raise awareness of the high price of food in the North and to gather Nunavummiut for a demonstration, she began with two people who said they wanted to help. Since that time in May, the FB group has caught the attention of the world, gathering over 19,000 members – more than half the population of Nunavut, where Papatsie lives.

The success of the group highlights the need for united discussion and action over the high cost of living for people in the North, who face complex challenges to living healthy and productive lives.
One of the current concerns for food security in Nunavut is the introduction in October of Nutrition North, a new food subsidy program for retailers, suppliers, and country food processors in isolated northern communities that replaces the

Food Mail Program
Since the 1960s, food had been shipped to remote communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavik and other far north aboriginal communities through the Food Mail program, where the transportation was handled by Canada Post and subsidized by the federal government. The subsidy program was changed in part because Canada Post said it was not set up for food freight delivery and the program was putting a strain on its service.

While there are still subsidies on all of the products being brought into the north, it is only perishable items that have a high subsidy rate. Anything else from canned goods to flour has a much lower subsidy rate and is considerably more expensive if the retailer opts to fly it in. Under Nutrition North, the government is encouraging retailers to make alternative arrangements, through whatever means works best for them, such as sea freight or truck delivery via ice roads.  

However, as Johnny Kasudluak, a chef and resident of Inukjuak states in a May, 2011 interview with Nation, many communities don’t use ice roads, and planes are the only option in the winter to deliver food and goods. Kasudluak points out that under the new program the prices for non-perishable items such as canned goods and flour, which families have gotten accustomed to eating, have actually increased because they are no longer subsidized at the same rate.

$11 for a Jar of Peanut Butter
The high cost of food in the North is well documented and families often ration their groceries to make ends meet. On the Feeding My Family FB page, Northern residents have been posting photos of food and products during their shopping trips. $11.19 for a jar of peanut butter, $17.19 for a 1.2 kg box of Rice Krispies, $7.43 for two pieces of broccoli. Food prices are accompanied by photos of wilted and bruised produce and products that are sold beyond their expiry dates. Though Nutrition North advocates a healthy diet, it is challenging to eat fresh produce when it is either too expensive or not fresh at all.

The question of what is nutritional for Inuit people is up for debate. Researchers have proven that the traditional diet of country meat and fat gives the highest calories needed for withstanding the cold temperatures of the North, but a steady supply of country food is not available. Diet changes with processed and packaged food high in sugars and cheaper carbohydrates have now become a staple and with it, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Although Nutrition North includes country food in its subsidy program, only country food processed in federally regulated plants is eligible, leaving smaller processors ineligible for the subsidy.

In a place where the temperature does not rise above freezing for eight to nine months of the year, food has never been taken for granted, and country food is closely tied to the cultural identity of Inuit people. The hunting, harvesting, and sharing of country food is integral in providing social cohesion and Inuit livelihoods have been defined by their relationship to the land. Inuit are communal with their food – anyone who is in need of it, is welcome to it.  A part of the hunt is often shared with the elders, not only out of respect, but as a necessity. The Inuit have a history of coping with famine. In earlier times, it was brought on by changes in the migratory patterns of animals – in modern times it is affected in part by the transient nature of government ideologies and subsidies.

Desparate Situation
Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said during his visit to Canada in May, that he was “struck” by the “desperate situation” indigenous people faced in the country. A report, Inuit and the Right to Food, submitted to Schutter during his visit, stated that adults living in Nunavut had a high prevalence of food insecurity at 68.8%, which is six times higher than the Canadian national average and is the highest documented food insecurity prevalence rate for any aboriginal population residing in a developed country.  

“They hunt every day”
However, Nunuvut MP, Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, downplayed Schutter’s visit by claiming that indigenous people don’t face food security issues because “they hunt every day.”

Many Nunavummiut were disappointed by Aglukkaq”s comments. With increasing limits on hunting, such as the five year hunting ban on caribou in Labrador, the cost of fuel, snowmobile / boat parts, firearms and ammunition, among other supplies needed for increasingly long hunting trips as animal populations dwindle, one online commenter pointed out, “food security is actually a BIGGER issue for families that hunt ‘every day.’”

Suppliers at Iqaluit’s monthly country-food outdoor market say they can’t keep up with demand. The number of harvesters able to hunt with regularity is smaller relative to the population of Inuit who want country food.
The discussion about food insecurity in the North is not new but with the advent of the Internet, people are able to address the problem with a unified voice. On May 11th, Coral Harbour took the first steps and organized a protest about high food prices and Nutrition North outside of the Northern Store. In June, an unprecedented event occurred where Nunavummiut across Nunavut simultaneously protested in their respective communities.

As one of the organizers, Papatsie admitted that protesting is not a traditional Inuit value, but she felt that people needed to step forward and speak out. For those that didn’t have access to computers or read English, flyers were distributed in syllabic for the elders and announced through the radio societies in the communities. The organizers asked the elders to “give us advice or direction to make sure we are doing the right thing in determining the best path on behalf of our meek and less fortunate.”

In August, another protest drew the attention of the national and international press.

The opportunity for more conversation about food security took place when Nunavut Food Security Coalition, led by the Government of Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. hosted a food security symposium in January 2013. More government strategies might be hard to swallow when poverty reduction goals are needed. However, symposium participant and Feeding My Family co-administrator Eric Joamie called the symposium “uplifting” and said food security isn’t only about food but involves housing, education, and financial literacy.

“The next steps are the objectives. We are about empowering people to speak up; this is about working together on an issue,” says Papatsie. From the posts on Feeding My Family, many people are offering support, from sharing information to donating clothes and non-perishable items. “What’s good about it is, that people are initiating [the conversation]. And I just have to sit back and smile.”


To donate: email feedingnunavut@gmail.com or check the list of food banks under Files in the Feeding My Family Facebook group.

Photo: Terry Adla, President of  Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) speaking at Celebration of the Seal,  an event that highlights the importance of country food for Inuit. Photo credit: ITK

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