Food insecurity in Nunavut 'should be considered a national crisis,' expert says

Food insecurity in Nunavut "needs remedial action," say the authors of a new report who call for national food policy.

Conference Board of Canada releases food report card, gives Nunavut a D for food security

The price of pasta in Pangnirtung, Nunavut. Canada doesn't think strategically around food, the Conference Board of Canada says. (Maggie Lucy Kilabuk‎/Feeding My Family Facebook)

Food insecurity in Nunavut "needs remedial action," say the authors of a new report who call for a national food policy.

The Conference Board of Canada released its 2016 food report card on provincial performance, which looks at industry prosperity, healthy food and diets, food safety, household food security and environmental sustainability.

The group defined food insecurity in terms of affordability, availability and utilization, as the United Nations does, said report co-author Jean-Charles Le Vallée, associate director of the board's Centre for Food in Canada.

Nunavut lags far behind the rest of Canada with one in four people food-insecure compared with up to 10 per cent in the provinces.

"Nunavut is affected more than any other province or territory by household food insecurity, and needs remedial action," the report's four authors wrote.

High food prices

The challenges include high food prices in remote and Northern communities and low incomes for Canada's Indigenous population as a whole, they said.

"Canada doesn't think as a country strategically around food," Le Vallée said. "We don't have a national food policy. We don't have a national food strategy."

Nunavut's food insecurity 'crisis'

6 years ago
Duration 2:10
One in four people in Nunavut are food-insecure and have poor access to affordable, healthy food.

In Nunavut in 2014, almost two-thirds of those under the age of 18 were living in households that were food-insecure, said Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto who studies food issues in relation to poverty and homelessness.

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, says food insecurity in Nunavut can be addressed. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"That's huge. That should be considered a national crisis," Tarasuk said.

Food insecurity in Nunavut can be addressed, in part because the population is not that large, she said.

"[It's] really a matter of great urgency that somebody federally move into Nunavut now and start to figure out what kind of resources need to be allocated there to enable people to meet basic needs."

Alarm bells

Alarm bells are ringing but new approaches are needed, said Iqaluit resident Leesee Papatsie. She created a Feeding My Family Facebook group. 

Leesee Papatsie created a Facebook group called Feeding My Family. (CBC)

"There's still people struggling to put food on the table," Papatsie said. "Sometimes we get asked, 'You have extra cereal? You have bread?' Just the basics."

The Conference Board assigned Nunavut a D for food security for those aged 12 and older based on 2011-12 data from Statistics Canada. The Northwest Territories was assigned a B and Yukon and all provinces got As.

The report said some people are more vulnerable, including those living in remote areas, hunting and gathering societies such as the Inuit, single parents, inner-city poor and low-income Canadians.

4 million Canadians

Overall, food insecurity affects 4 million Canadians, the report estimates. 

This graph shows the percentage of food insecurity in provinces and territories. (Conference Board of Canada)

For Tarasuk, those numbers show no province or territory deserves a grade of A or B on food insecurity because so many are still going hungry.

"There is no question food insecurity erodes people's health," she said.

By the time someone is seriously worried about being able to feed themselves and family, chances are they're behind on rent, utility bills and prescription medication.

Regardless of where in the country people are struggling, Tarasuk said other research points to the benefit of interventions to improve the financial circumstances of those at the bottom of the economic spectrum. 

The food insecurity situation in P.E.I. hasn't changed in about 10 years, said Colleen Walton, a nutrition researcher at the University of PEI and a member of the province's food security network.

"Parents, especially women, will protect their children, so when you have children living in food-insecure situations and experiencing hunger and poor-quality diets we know that the families are in dire, dire conditions," Walton said. "It's all about money."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mandate letter for agriculture includes a call for a food policy "that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country."

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar, Nicole Ireland and Mike Salomonie