New study sheds light on food insecurity in the North

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NEWfood_secureExorbitant grocery prices and unhealthy options are rampant in grocery stores throughout northern aboriginal communities, yet very few efforts are being made to ensure families have access to affordable, nutritious foods.

Food insecurity is a well-known issue in Arctic Canada. But a report released by the Canadian Council of Academies last month captures the details of this challenge in a new and disturbing way. The study, titled Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge exposes a number of urgent and alarming facts behind nutrition in the North with a catalogue of information on the subject that aims to initiate dialogue for solutions.

“There are very few people who get all their calories from traditional food, so everyone is concerned about what is available to them in stores,” said Dr. Harriet Kuhlein, chair of the panel that produced the report.

Commissioned by the federal health ministry in 2011, the report gathered existing evidence on food availability and nutritional options throughout northern Canada. The panel’s findings are decidedly grim. The primary conclusion described food insecurity in Aboriginal communities as a serious problem that also affects as many as half the non-Aboriginal households in the north.

Among the information cited in the report was a 2007-2008 study that found 70% of Inuit children lived in food-insecure households. Of the 25% who lived in severely food-insecure households, 90% went hungry and 60% went entire days without eating.

The high cost of food transport is one of the primary causes of insecurity in low-income households, particularly in fly-in communities. But that doesn’t mean that the concept of a food-secure North isn’t realistic.

“The key is supply and demand,” said Kuhnlein. “People have to demand better food, and there has to be government support to ensure that those demands are met. First Nations leadership need to sit down with the government and figure out how to make better food available that people can access with the income that they have.”

While access to any food is problematic for some, the lack of healthy food availability is a problem for all. The report found that many of the often-available market foods were not only the cheapest, but also the unhealthiest.

The report does not offer any immediate solutions. However, it does emphasize the importance of establishing “food sovereignty” in Aboriginal communities across Canada. The panel unanimously found that “decisions about food systems, including markets, production modes, food cultures, and environments, should be made by those who depend on them.”

The report is currently under review by the Ministry of Health.

“One would expect that there will be a strong response to this information,” said Kuhlein. “How can development in the North and with Aboriginal people take place if it isn’t addressed?”

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