For a full pandemic recovery, Northern Canada needs policy change on food insecurity

“A symptom of a larger issue”

Why It Matters

Before the COVID-19, over half of Nunavut’s households experienced food insecurity. Pandemic lockdowns have heighted the issue. In partnership with Community Foundations Canada we look at Qajuqturvik Food Centre, which is providing solutions through food, tradition and community.

Food insecurity is a pressing problem in Canada’s North. In Nunavut, 57 percent of households are food insecure — the highest rates in the country, and more than four times Canada’s national average.

While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut, the pandemic’s economic impact and lockdown measures are expected to exacerbate food insecurity in the region. One reason for this is the high price of foods, which often need to be flown in from the south. In 2016, groceries in Nunavut were three times more expensive than that of an average Canadian grocery store. 

In 2011, the Government of Canada launched Nutrition North to help make perishable foods more affordable and accessible by offsetting the cost of transport. Despite these efforts, a study by the Canadian Medical Association found that food insecurity continued to worsen in the region, going up by 13.2 percent after the full implementation of the Nutrition North program. The study concludes with ‘serious concerns’ about the federal government’s focus on food subsidy programs, and says that more effective initiatives are urgently needed. 

That’s why a meaningful pandemic recovery in Northern Canada needs to include change at a policy level, according to those working at the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre (QCFC), an Iqaluit-based charity. “We’re looking at ways that we can influence our members of the territorial government, as well as our municipal government,” says executive director Wade Thorhaug. “We organized an event for the federal election where we had the main candidates running for parliament discuss a number of issues on food security and poverty.”

One issue is access to country, or traditional Inuit food (on which Nutrition North spent less than 1 percent of its budget). Over the last few decades, hunters in Canada’s North have faced lobbying from animal rights groups and a decrease in youth learning traditional hunting skills.

The pandemic has brought into sharp light the many systemic issues that those in Canada’s North are facing, especially when it comes to the role of food sovereignty in the local economy. In fact, one researcher estimated that $143 million is generated annually within Nunavut’s local food system, highlighting how important hunters are, and what an economic hit it would be if local food production was reduced even further. 

During the pandemic, CFC has been continuing to provide both non-perishable foods, perishables, prepared meals and country foods such as char, caribou and maktaaq. For Thorhaug, supporting local hunters and trappers could be one part of a solution for longer-term pandemic recovery and food security. “There’s been a few pockets of funding that has gone towards supporting harvesters and hunters in the area, but no major changes,” he says. “More targeted support for the local hunting economy would be appreciated.”

Before the pandemic, QCFC served meals seven days a week, seeing over 70 people per month. Due to lockdown measures, QCFC has only been open for five days a week during the pandemic, “but we’ve seen a significant drop in the number of people coming to our site to get meals,” says Thorhaug. He believes that’s due to the emergency response benefits being provided by the federal government. “It’s having a huge effect on people’s ability to access food, and demonstrates what’s been shown in research: people who are in food insecure households, when they do have an income, spend it on essentials.

Thorhaug’s hope is that “this influx of cash to individuals demonstrates how impactful those can be. I hope that even after this crisis passes, we can have some kind of system where people can ensure that their basic needs are being met, with an appropriate amount of income to allow for that.”

Nunavut sees Canada’s highest levels of child poverty. In 2016, 18 percent of those of working age in Nunavut were unemployed. For the rest of Canada, that number was 7 percent. As well as access to food, QCFC provides culinary skills training for underemployed people, to support their entry into the workforce. In its first year of running, 21 participants completed the program. “We are addressing what affects food insecurity in a broader sense, rather than dealing with food insecurity itself — which is really just a symptom of a larger issue,” says Thorhaug. “That’s why we’re focused on employment, because income is the biggest contributor to food insecurity.” The centre also provided after-school cooking classes to elementary school kids, food waste programming, and more. 

For Thorhaug, simply opening more food banks is not the solution to reaching food security, as they provide a temporary solution to a deeper problem. “Food banks seem to just grow in size, without having a huge impact on people’s lives,” says Wade Thorhaug, executive director. “For the most part, there’s a tendency to look at an organization like ours and say it’s a soup kitchen or food bank, and not see the bigger part we’re trying to play in empowering people individually.” 

Looking to the future, Thorhaug hopes organizations like QCFC will have stronger pull when it comes to how governments respond to major social issues like food insecurity. “We want to see a charitable sector that’s able to get its voice out,” he says. “Especially in small rural communities, there are not a lot of opportunities for people to rally around certain social justice issues. There’s a conception that charities should do the work that needs to be done, but not really have much of a say in government — but the opposite is true. We need organizations to unite people’s voices, to affect some serious systemic change.