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Social Issues
New Report Sounds The Alarm On Food Insecurity In Canada’s North
March 27, 2014
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(Photos: Henry P. Huntington and Cara Loverock)

Take a look at the photos above, from grocery stores in Nunavut. An ordinary 2 kg box of spaghetti that might $2 or $3 in much of Canada? $18.79 in Clyde River. And a frozen pizza that might cost $8 in Toronto? $27.99 in Iqaluit.

Those striking price differences give you a sense of the scale of the difficulty faced by Northerners trying to feed their families in Canada. That's the subject of a new report from the Council of Canadian Academies commissioned by the federal Minister of Health in 2011.

Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge attempts to collect the research on food insecurity in the North, especially in Aboriginal communities, and offer a starting point for coming up with solutions. Its assessment of the situation today is grim: "The Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada found that food insecurity among northern Aboriginal peoples requires urgent attention in order to mitigate impacts on health and well-being."

The report cites figures from a 2007-2008 survey that found that 70 per cent of Inuit preschoolers lived in a household that faced food insecurity. And among families that ranked as "severely food insecure" (based on a scale developed by Health Canada), the situation was particularly dire: 76 per cent had kids who'd skipped meals within the past year, and 60 per cent had a day when they didn't eat at all.

Food security is defined by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization as the condition that exists “when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is safe and consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for a healthy and active life."

The report makes clear that the problem has many causes, and isn't simple to fix. "To fully understand the issue of food security, consideration must be given to the many factors that influence life in the North, such as environmental change, culture, governance, and economies,” said Dr. Harriet Kuhnlein, the chair of the panel that produced the report, in a release.

One of the issues identified is the extremely high cost of food in remote areas. The average expenditure on food in Nunavut was calculated as $1,317 per month, as compared to a national average of $609. That's particularly difficult to manage when the median income of Inuit adults is less than $20,000 per year, or $1,666 per month.

Another issue is what the report calls a "nutrient transition," as Inuit communities move away from nutrient-rich traditional diets to imported market-based food, which "may increase the risk for diet-sensitive chronic diseases [like diabetes] and micronutrient deficiencies in northern Aboriginal communities." And the most affordable market food is often the least nutritious.

The federal government's Nutrition North program, which launched in 2011, is an attempt to improve access to healthy perishable foods in the North by means of a subsidy to retailers and suppliers. Critics of the program, which replaced an older one called Food Mail, argue it's ineffective at providing food at reasonable prices. “The foods that are subsidized are not necessarily the ones that are suitable or most culturally relevant for people living in Nunavut,” Allison MacRury, the Nunavut government nutritionist for the territory, told the Globe and Mail. One reason prices are so high in the North is the high cost of transporting goods to remote communities.

The report also underlines the importance of "food sovereignty:" ensuring that "decisions about food systems, including markets, production modes, food cultures, and environments, should be made by those who depend on them." 

The findings echo those of an investigation conducted in 2012 by the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter. "What I've seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and aboriginal [and] non-aboriginal peoples," he said at the time. That investigation was strongly criticized by then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who said, "We think it's simply a waste of resources to come to Canada to give political lectures."

To read the full report, head over to the Council of Canadian Academies website.


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