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Hunger in the Arctic

By Brian Kingston

Food insecurity rates in Nunavut are among the highest in the world for an indigenous population living in a developed country. In fact, over two-thirds of people in Nunavut have trouble finding enough affordable, nutritious food.  This is not acceptable, and Canada must act. 

Food is a basic human need, a part of cultural identity, and an essential building block in the development of every stable, resilient, and productive society. A resilient Arctic needs a healthy population.

Families struggle every day to pay for necessities such as clothing and shelter because of the amount of family income they spend on food. According to the Inuit Health Survey, the average household spends $380 per week on food, or $19,760 per year.  With 49.6 percent of Inuit adults earning less than $20,000 per year, the cost of food is a shockingly large burden.

For centuries, Inuit survived in some of the harshest conditions on Earth, living off the land and sharing food among their extended families. Showing one’s children how to follow and hunt migratory animals, shoot a harpoon, and sew warm, waterproof clothes from sealskin meant the difference between life and death.

Southern interest in the North had a devastating impact on Inuit culture: residential schools removed children from their families, erasing traditional knowledge and relocations into permanent communities sometimes thousands of kilometers away from familiar animal migration patterns marooned hunters.

One consequence of this history is that hunting is no longer an ordinary and expected part of every Inuk’s life. The transition from a land-based subsistence economy to a wage-based economy has led to a decline in the number of full-time Inuit hunters. As a result, Inuit today rely mainly on store-bought food, much of it high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, shipped north at an astronomically high cost.  

A 2013 food price survey conducted by the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics found that, on average, food prices were over 140 percent higher in Nunavut than in the rest of Canada. Staple vegetables such as onions and celery were found to be, on average, 233 percent and 287 percent more expensive per kilogram, respectively.

While the situation is complex, action can be taken today. A 2014 report titled "Hunger in Nunavut: Local Food for Healthier Communities," released by Action Canada, a Canadian fellowship program, studied food insecurity in Nunavut and found that improving access to fresh local food is both nutritionally beneficial and culturally appropriate. 

Historically, Northern people maintained a nutritionally viable lifestyle by consuming traditional, locally available food. Research has established that a diet based exclusively on local food sources can provide adequate levels of vitamins and nutrients, and is an excellent source of protein, healthy fat, and energy.

Yet inadequate hunting capacity in most Nunavut communities hinders access to local food. Most households would prefer to eat more local food, which is unlikely unless one has a hunter at home. Not having an active hunter in the family increases the likelihood of hunger: of the 35 percent of Nunavut households without an active hunter, 75 percent were food insecure.

Not only do hunters help their own families, they also help to reduce hunger elsewhere in their community. Seventy-four percent of households with extra local food share with family and friends who need it the most.

At the same time, limited processing and distribution capacity hinders the ability of households without an active hunter to access local foods. There are currently only three major processing facilities in Nunavut, and in many indigenous communities inadequate storage capacity impedes both trade between communities and the commercial sale of local food.

The Action Canada report recommends improving the food supply chain from hunting to processing and distribution, all while increasing awareness of local food to address food security in Nunavut. This could be achieved by taking the following actions:

1.     Increase and better target subsidies for hunters to ensure they have the equipment required to hunt.

2.     Train youth in traditional hunting skills through programs at Arctic colleges and Inuit organizations, and through apprenticeships.

3.     Invest in community infrastructure and examine handling guidelines to support the appropriate inspection, processing, and distribution of local foods.

4.     Create stronger linkages among local processors, hunters, and retail outlets in order to increase the availability of local food in stores.

5.     Extend funding for the Nunavut Food Security Coalition, the group responsible for addressing food insecurity in Nunavut.

6.     Review the federal government’s Nutrition North local food subsidy.

7.     Promote the marketing of local foods in northern communities.

8.     Invest in programs that provide local food exposure at an early age, such as programs that serve local food in daycare facilities.

Community resilience, economic development, physical health, and sovereignty are all influenced by food security. Failure to address the negative health, social, and economic costs resulting from food insecurity in the Arctic impedes the development of northern communities. Better access to local food is one part of a complex solution that will not only make people less hungry—it will also improve nutrition, decrease disease, and foster cultural pride.

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Brian Kingston is a 2013/14 Action Canada Fellow and one of the authors of the Action Canada report “Hunger in Nunavut: Local Food for Healthier Communities.”

[Photo courtesy of  Wikipedia and Mike Beauregard]

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