High food cost exacerbates poor nutrition in North

Dental and health care suffer | Outreach program supports food self sufficiency through farmer organizations

TORONTO — The failure of the Canadian food system in remote, northern and aboriginal communities is well documented.

The current south-to-north delivery of food is expensive and the calories that are delivered are often not in the form of healthy choices. Obesity, diabetes and dental ailments are common.

“The status quo could not be more expensive on the front end with the subsidies and transportation and other costs. It could not be more expensive on the back end with the health costs,” said Dr. Heather Exner-Pirot of the University of Saskatchewan’s outreach and indigenous engagement program.

“It’s become almost a rite of passage for young people to go south for dental surgery by the age of 12. That should be shocking.”

Exner-Pirot advocates for changes that will empower the people most affected. She said there is too much reliance on the welfare state through programs such as Nutrition North Canada, which offers subsidies to food retailers but doesn’t put enough emphasis on self-sufficiency.

Exner-Pirot said farming can be part of the solution.

“There are places, like Alaska, Iceland and Russia, where there is agriculture in the north,” she told the Canadian Food Summit March 23.

“You don’t want to dismiss the idea out of hand.”

The Yukon and Northwest Territories now have small farmer organizations, and membership is growing.

She said specially designed greenhouses also have a place. They feature south-facing glass or poly walls and solid walls to the north. LED lighting and biomass for heat and power help make them viable.

Exner-Pirot said greenhouses and farming are also opportunities for economic development, even if enterprises are operated on a breakeven basis.

She said “country food” was the mainstay for indigenous peoples of the north until the 1960s and 1970s, when the welfare state replaced it. She sees it as part of the answer today, as does Serge Larivière, director general of the Cree Hunters Income Security Board in Quebec.

Larivière is supporting the Cree of James Bay as they promote a return to traditional ways.

“The Cree have a saying: never miss a chance to fill up your truck and never miss a chance to have something to eat,” he said.

Modern ways have infected many of the young in the communities where Larivière works. Getting back to the land is viewed as being “uncool” and “unplugged.”

Still, the old ways remain stubbornly entrenched in a culture that emphasizes sharing food within communities and with strangers.

The annual spring “goose break” is one example, in which most community members are involved. They use almost the entire carcasses, including the feet, which are considered a delicacy.

The Cree Hunter & Trapper publication, soon to publish its 20th issue, is one initiative that encourages young people to become involved.

The Food First Foundation also encourages a return to traditional food as part of its mandate, said co-ordinator Karen Pryznyk. There is also an emphasis on general nutrition through the school system.

“What we need to do is to empower families to learn how to feed themselves.”

Pryznyk said poverty exacerbates the food deficit problem. Poor health is often connected to children’s failure in school, and there are many single-parent households.

She said a common question is whether retailers are taking advantage of the Nutrition North Canada program for their own gain.

Mike Beaulieu, vice-president of services with the Northwest Company, said the savings are passed on through the company’s network of stores.

The program is an improvement over the previous subsidized food mail program, with an additional 16 percent savings overall, he added. As well, produce, meat and dairy consumption has increased over the past two years.

“As a retailer, we’re audited. We’re audited on an ad hoc and on an annual basis,” he said.

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