The Struggle For Food Security In Canada’s North

By Claire Chauvel
Social Connectedness Fellow

Food insecurity has been defined by Health Canada as “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.”[i] It is both a social and public health crisis, compounding inequality and detrimental to well-being, as it impacts the most disenfranchised and low-income segments of society.

In Canada, 4 million people and 1 in 8 families are food insecure.[ii] Among those severely affected are northern and Indigenous communities. In fact, rates of food insecurity for Indigenous households (27%) across Canada are more than double that of non-Indigenous households (12%).[iii] And despite extensive measurement, monitoring, and policy implementation, the problem still persists.[iv]

The solution to this urgent problem will not come easily. An expert panel on food insecurity in the North headed by Dr. Harriet Kuhnlein concluded, “Consideration must be given to the many factors that influence life in the North, such as environmental change, culture, governance, and economies.”[v]

In terms of economics, food prices in the North are exorbitant, with a system that allows retailers to arbitrarily control and set prices. University of Toronto Anthropologist Tracey Galloway found that Nutrition North, a $77 million governmental program launched in 2011 that dispenses subsidies in hopes of reducing excessive food prices, has resulted in “stale-dated, unreliable food on store shelves without making grocery bills more affordable.”[vi] As a result, health standards have been compromised, food insecurity remains rampant, and work productivity has been undermined. Galloway convincingly argues that subsidies should be reformed via the introduction of mandatory price caps and a regulatory framework for pricing of essential food.

The problem of food insecurity in northern and Indigenous communities is also being tackled from within. For example, Adam Malcolm, a teacher in Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut crowd-funded the construction of a local greenhouse to help students gain access to healthy food.[vii] Malcolm’s hope is that the greenhouse will encourage healthy eating, deliver greater food security, food sovereignty, and generate a heightened sense of community. The Nunavut hamlet of Arviat has also taken action under the leadership of community educator Shirley Tagalik.[viii] While community greenhouses in the North are not new, these two are unique in that they are geared towards helping youth and provide coveted summer jobs.

Conversely, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada’s Larry Lenton cautions against placing too much hope in greenhouses as a solution. He argues that high equipment costs could “drive up the price of any vegetables a northern greenhouse can commercially produce.”[ix] Further, he asserts that “communities are small and spread out, which means the market size is tiny… [and] a lack of people with the necessary green-thumb skills is also a hurdle.”[x] Lenton does, however, concede that greenhouses “nurture the skills needed for a greenhouse capable of supplying healthy food for everyone in their community.”[xi]

Due to amplified food insecurity, Indigenous households in Canada are far more prone to socio-demographic risk factors like extreme poverty, living in rental accommodation, poor health, reliance on social assistance, and single-motherhood.[xii] Tackling food insecurity could help alleviate these issues. Of equal importance, urban-dwellers involved with community gardens and greenhouses have cited that cultivation “is rebuilding community — it’s such a cliché — but rebuilding community around food.”[xiii] Having faced years of disenfranchisement, community gardens could not only be a part of the food insecurity solution but also a part of the process of strengthening identity and community.

Individuals across Canada can help by putting pressure on their representatives to change the status quo. They can also get involved with Food Secure Canada, which hosts a platform called Indigenous Circle that serves as a space where “Indigenous People and non-Indigenous allies can sharestrategize, and act to ensure food sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples.” Forums help catalyze ideas that spur answers and are an excellent tool in the fight against food insecurity. Such actions of mustering solidarity and support will also forge greater bonds across Canada.

Since food and community are inextricably linked, the promotion of social connectedness can go a long way towards addressing food insecurity. In other words, if we invest in building community, then food security, resiliency, and justice will follow.

It is important to note that while traditional Indigenous food security measures have not been discussed in this brief article, they remain a crucial part of the solution.

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[i] “Household Food Insecurity in Canada: Overview.” Health Canada.

[ii] “1 in 8 Canadian families struggle to put food on table, study says.” CBCNews. July 29, 2013. Accessed June 15, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/1-in-8-canadian-families-struggle-to-put-food-on-table-study-says-1.1346620.

[iii] “Food insecurity a growing challenge in Canada’s northern, remote Aboriginal communities.” ScienceDaily. March 27, 2014. Accessed June 15, 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140327111701.htm.

[iv] Tarasuk, V, Mitchell, A, Dachner, N. (2016). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2014.

[v] Health, Environment, and Indigenous Communities       Research Group. Accessed June 15, 2017. http://heicresearch.com/?page_id=dxygtlnl&paged=2.

[vi] Weber, Bob. “Federal Food Subsidy Program Still Failing Northerners: Study.” The Huffington Post. December 04, 2016. Accessed June 15, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/12/04/federal-subsidy-failing-to-keep-northern-food-healthy-affordable-study_n_13412404.html.

[vii] Drinkwater, Rob. “Nunavut Teacher’s Greenhouse Will Help Students Access Healthy Food.” The Huffington Post. May 03, 2017. Accessed June 12, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/04/30/nunavut-greenhouse_n_16345234.html.

[viii] Prestwich, Emma. “Nunavut Food Is Pricey, So Young Adults Are Growing It Themselves.” The Huffington Post. May 19, 2016. Accessed June 15, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/05/19/arviat-greenhouse_n_9995270.html.

[ix] Drinkwater, Rob. “Nunavut Teacher’s Greenhouse Will Help Students Access Healthy Food.”

[x]  Ibid.

[xi]  Ibid.

[xii] “Aboriginal peoples and food insecurity.” PROOF Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity. Accessed June 15, 2017. http://proof.utoronto.ca/resources/research-publications/aboriginal-peoples-and-food-insecurity/.

[xiii] Muhlke, Christine. “Growing Together.” The New York Times. October 09, 2010. Accessed June 15, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/magazine/10FOB-WWLN-t.html.