Experts sound warning on looming food crisis in the North

Image of a remote community

Isolated communities in Northern Canada are saddled with high costs of importing food.

Aboriginal communities in Northern Canada are facing an impending health crisis due to food insecurity, according to a new report from a panel of Canadian experts.

The report says these Aboriginal households have double the rate of food insecurity compared to the average Canadian household, at 27 per cent compared to 14 per cent. Harriet Kuhnlein, the panel’s chair and a professor emerita of human nutrition at McGill University, said food insecurity is more than just not having enough to eat: “It includes the key pillars of availability and access to food that is culturally acceptable, safe, and adequate for nutrition and good health.”

Kuhnlein, speaking at a webinar organized by the Science Media Centre of Canada, said the long-term health effects of food insecurity are very serious for these communities. “People are eating less healthy food, and we’re finding increasing obesity, along with increasing diabetes and other related chronic diseases, such as cardio-vascular disease as well as mental health and wellness,” she said.

The expert panel, which was put together by the Council of Canadian Academies, focused on assessing all the evidence currently available and suggested some possibilities for mitigating the crisis.

‘Nutrition transition’ creates health hazards

Panel member David Natcher, the director of the Indigenous Land Management Institute at the University of Saskatchewan, said much of the problem of food insecurity has to do with the logistical difficulties of getting healthy food to isolated northern towns.

“You can look at cost, for example,” he said, outlining how healthy food in a Yukon city like Whitehorse (population 27, 889) costs less than half what it does for a remote Yukon community like Old Crow (population 267.)

“The average cost of groceries for a household in Nunavut is approximately $19,700 per year, yet 49 per cent of Inuit in these regions earn less than $20,000 per year,” Natcher said. “Obviously if all of their income is going toward securing a healthy food basket, there are enormous challenges.”

One consequence of the high cost of food is that many families are forced to buy the cheapest food possible at stores, leading to what Kuhnlein calls “a nutrition transition.”

Aboriginal folk hunt some caribou

Climate change is endangering some of the traditional foods Aboriginals hunt in the North, such as caribou

“There are many transitions taking place in the north, but the nutrition transition in particular is associated with health outcomes,” Kuhnlein said. “People are eating less and less of their high-quality traditional country foods, and more and more of the foods they’re buying in the store. It tends to be highly processed and not as nutritionally rich.” Traditional country foods count as everything these communities hunt, fish, and gather — the same animals and plants that are at risk due to climate change. (See sidebar.)

The people in northern Aboriginal communities most at risk from food insecurity are women and children, the panel reported. Nunavut is the worst region, where 25 per cent of Inuit preschoolers are severely food insecure, with another 31 per cent moderately food insecure. Within the severe group, 60 per cent have gone a day recently without eating.


Just a little chart showing some neat stats

No silver bullet

The panel didn’t ascribe the food insecurity crisis to one cause, instead citing a variety of factors that don’t lend themselves to one “silver bullet” solution. Some of the factors have to do with big-picture governance and economic challenges, while the changing environment due to climate change has also disrupted some of the local food systems – which has in turn lead to the greater reliance on cheap store-bought food and Kuhnlein’s “nutrition transition” concerns.

While the panel wasn’t mandated with making specific policy recommendations to the federal and local governments, they urged a “holistic approach” that emphasized working with residents to take advantage of “traditional knowledge and community strengths.”

“We reviewed a spectrum of programs and policies that can address food insecurity, ranging from short-term mitigation such as food banks and soup kitchens to long-term organizational changes and policy responses to focus on the root causes,” Kuhnlein said.

Natcher said that one potential way to mitigate the food crisis is through a greenhouse program, though it will require more study as to how to effectively run them and ensure they produce what’s needed locally.

We’re really at a critical juncture. The trends that we’re experiencing, some action needs to be taken.

“Particularly here in Saskatchewan, there have been a variety of workshops across the province to look at the viability of community greenhouses, not only for local food production, but also to supply local and regional mines – so there’s an economic development aspect,” he said. “Agriculture Canada has recently supported a few pilot projects working with First Nations to see if this is an option. So I think there’s a lot of interest and excitement around that.”

Ultimately, however, the panel argued that Canada’s northern Aboriginal communities desperately need a comprehensive poverty-reduction strategy, and that’s up to the federal government to coordinate with local agencies and residents to determine.

“The panel concluded that we’re really at a critical juncture,” Natcher said. “The trends that we’re experiencing, some action needs to be taken.”

Another amazing chart

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