We need to talk about food insecurity in Canada. This isn’t new; it’s been an ongoing issue for a long, long time. According to the World Food Summit, food security exists where “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” So where significant percentages of northern rural communities are food insecure, it’s safe to say it’s a huge issue. While 13% of Canadian households (4 million people, including 1.5 million children) experienced food insecurity at some level in 2012, this crisis disproportionately affects Canada’s remote Northern communities, especially those in Nunavut. Food insecurity in Nunavut remains the highest in the country at 45.2%. Within this, indigenous populations in Nunavut suffer from food insecurity rates of 68%, the highest in the world for an indigenous population in a developed country. According to Statistics Canada research completed in 2012, the Northwest Territories has the second highest food insecurity rate in Canada, at 13.7%. Food insecurity continues to negatively impact the physical and mental health of northern Aboriginal communities, and has been associated with major health problems including obesity and cardiovascular diseases. Everywhere in Canada, off-reserve Aboriginal households in Canada are twice as likely as other Canadian households to be food insecure. The poor health and long-term physical and mental disabilities resulting from food insecurity can limit activity and performance at home, work or school for those affected. This issue can also lead to major depression, in a region already struggling with high suicide rates. Research suggests that in order to protect their children from food insecurity, adults will often reduce the variety and quantity of their own meals in order to prevent their children from experiencing severe hunger. Especially worrying, Canadian households with children have a higher prevalence of food insecurity than those without children. Nearly 70% of Inuit preschoolers ages 3 to 5 lived in food-insecure households, hindering the healthy growth and development they deserve.
The Council of Canadian Academies has looked into the diversity of experiences with food insecurity had by northern First Nations, Inuit, and Métis households and communities. In a report entitled “Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge,” food insecurity is presented as a vastly complex issue that cannot be “solved” using one single approach. A range of holistic approaches must be implemented, and existing knowledge gaps must be addressed with more research and food security measurements. Cooperation of all relevant actors is required to seriously address the issue, including policy-makers, local businesses, and the communities themselves.
But why exactly is food insecurity so prevalent in remote Northern communities? Why must almost half of Nunavut’s population struggle with sky-high food prices and widespread hunger? In these sparsely populated regions, food must be flown or shipped in during the winter months, resulting in extremely high shipping costs.
In addition to high shipping costs, a variety of other stressors contribute to food insecurity, including unemployment, poor quality housing, increased hunting costs, socio-cultural changes (such as the decreased transfer of traditional hunting knowledge), low income, and reliance on income support from the government. The historical legacy of colonial intrusion (and forced imposition of changing educational and economic systems) continues to linger, and there has been a gradual shift away from high-quality “country food” (such as seals, fish and caribou) to store-bought food. In stores, the food that is most affordable is often that which is heavily processed and low on nutrition. Due to these ridiculous food prices, an increasingly number of families have turned to food banks in order to survive, and food bank use increased in the region in 2012. In often highly vulnerable Northern communities, having an active hunter in the household, or consuming country food, offers significant protection against food insecurity. Unfortunately, the rising costs of hunting mean that access to traditional “country foods” is increasingly sparse. Traditional knowledge must be recovered, revitalized, and re-prioritized.
Though this is obviously a crucially important issue for Canada, the federal government hasn’t come anywhere close to addressing it. While a federal program entitled “Nutrition North” was launched in 2011, designed to offset food transportation foods to remote and northern communities, families continue to spend more money on groceries per week than they were under previous programs.
Canadians have a collective responsibility to prioritize this issue, and to face it head on. Food insecurity in northern rural communities is reaching crisis levels, and continues to worsen the longer it is unaddressed. Unlike other countries dealing with food insecurity, Canada has the resources and capacity to address these issues. It’s time for change.
This Wednesday (October 21) QNSA is hosting feast night at Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, from 5:00pm-7:00pm. This opportunity will be used to let people know about our plans for the upcoming year, with a focus on our Northern Food initiative, in which we support a family in Nunavut by providing them with the necessary funds to purchase local foods. We hope to see those from the Queen’s and Kingston communities come out for great food and important conversation!