Food challenges in Canadian North complex

‘Nutrition transition’ | Report finds residents in northern Canada are eating fewer locally sourced foods

The local food scene looks a little different In the far reaches of the Canadian North.

Moose, fish, polar bears and belugas have long been staple foods for residents in remote areas situated on permafrost inhospitable to agricultural production.

However, the authors of a new report observe what they call a “nutrition transition.” That is, residents in communities spanning three territories and the northern parts of provinces from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador are eating fewer traditional foods and more processed food bought in stores.

The transition comes with health ramifications and an increased financial burden for residents. It’s one of the contributing factors to a significant food insecurity issue affecting the northern Aboriginal population, which the United Nations condemned last year.

The problem is worst in Nunavut, where surveys find more than 36 percent of households are food insecure. The numbers are higher in homes with children and can be even greater in individual communities.

“We’re not looking to turn back the clock so that everybody is eating only traditional or country foods,” said Harriet Humphries, who chaired the committee that authored the report, Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada, for the Council of Canadian Academies.

“The task is to find a sustainable and healthy balance between the two kinds of food and recognizing that even in small amounts, the traditional foods, the country foods, provide important protein and good fats and essential vitamins and minerals into the diet.”

The report, which was commissioned by Health Canada to assess food security issues in the region and resulting health concerns, highlights the complexity of the issue because challenges vary from one region to another and even within communities.

Shipping food into the North is expensive, but the cost of healthy food can rise significantly in a community in Nunavut compared to a larger centre such as Whitehorse.

Fuel costs in some communities can prohibit foraging and harvesting of local food.

The report also notes environmental changes and declining wildlife abundance.

A federal subsidy program, Nutrition North Canada, isn’t available to all communities.

David Natcher of the University of Saskatchewan said grocery costs In Nunavut can consume most of a family’s income, although the report describes the issue as greater than access to food and economic development.

“We’re really at a critical juncture when it comes to food insecurity in the North. The trends that we’re experiencing some action needs to be taken,” said Natcher.

“Jobs alone for certain segments of that population is not going to address the issues surrounding food insecurity. They are far too complex. There is increased pressure, we believe, to deal with food insecurity in the North, and those solutions will require certainly the involvement of policy makers but also (non-government organizations) and those community members who are most affected by food insecurity.”

The Conference Board of Canada’s food strategy, which was released last month as part of an ongoing dialogue around a Canadian national strategy, supported student nutrition programs and improved food distribution in needed areas, as well as community gardens and tax credits.

Food Secure Canada proposes further measures to support “food sovereignty” in indigenous, rural and remote communities.

Gardening and greenhouse operations are being explored as options in some parts of the North where production is viable and costs aren’t prohibitive.

The Northern Healthy Foods Initiative has built more than 800 gardens and more than 50 greenhouses in Manitoba.

“One of the data gaps that we’ve identified is that there is more known about food security and food insecurity in the far North in places like Nunuvut than is known in the northern provinces. Others have referred to (northern provinces) as the North below the North,” said Murray Humphries, director of McGill University’s Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment.

“That is an area where indications are that food insecurity could be quite high and at the same time climate is more amendable to local food production.”

The report makes no recommendations, but it does review existing programs, subsidies and initiatives.

“We hope both from that report and from our own report that the urgency and the injustice comes across very strongly,” said Humphries.

“This is an urgent and unfair situation that needs to rectified.”

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