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Heightened grocery sales in Nunavut highlight food insecurity

Relief funding for the COVID-19 pandemic has been effective in increasing access to food in remote northern communities — but it’s also revealed the true extent of food insecurity that Nunavut households face.

Because many communities are using pandemic relief funds to give out food hampers during isolation and school closures, food sales have increased in the territory, said Wayne Walsh, who oversees the Nutrition North program, during a parliamentary Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs on Dec. 8. 

Nutrition North is a federal government subsidy program to make food more affordable and accessible for Northerners in isolated communities.

Walsh said the Canada Emergency Response Benefit payment also led to an increase in food purchases.

“Pandemic measures have been effective for the most part, however the outbreak has also highlighted the degree of need in northern isolated communities, and the critical link between food security and poverty,” he said. 

Bacon is selling for $13.79 in Iqaluit in this May 2018 file photo. (Nick Murray/CBC News )

Following a one-time federal addition of $25 million in April to the subsidy program for food in remote northern communities, Walsh said the price of flour has gone down and items like hand sanitizer and soap are now subsidized. 

“Children and women bear the brunt of food insecurity in the North,” he said. “The number one cause of food insecurity is poverty. If poverty was addressed then food security would be addressed.” 

‘A focus and concern on skill building’  

A government of Nunavut representative told the committee that Nunavummiut remain critical of the Nutrition North program. Lindsay Turner, director of poverty reduction for the Department of Family Services, said residents are looking for transparency from the Canadian government in how food subsidies are decided. 

The territory says the program should measure food that is being consumed over food that is being shipped. 

And, communities want to have more control over how they access food, she said, explaining that accessing food has changed since younger generations are not learning how to hunt, and equipment used for harvesting is expensive. 

A file photo from May 2018. Food is significantly more costly in Nunavut grocery stores compared to other parts of Canada. (Nick Murray/CBC News)

“There is very much a focus and concern on skill building,” she said, adding “it’s difficult to take steps forward in your life if you are hungry.” 

She called the cost of a snowmobile, gun and qamutiik a “limiting factor.”

Harvesters grant program fills gaps  

Walsh told the committee that the Nutrition North program alone will never solve food insecurity in northern Canada.

He spoke highly of the Harvesters Support Grant, a new component of the Nutrition North program. It was developed in collaboration with Indigenous partners to increase access to traditional foods by reducing the high costs associated with traditional hunting and harvesting. Walsh said it offsets shortfalls in the Nutrition North program, which doesn’t fund harvesting, training or community food production.  

Through the grant, Nunavut will see $14.8 million from the federal government over the next five years for community-led harvesting programs.  

A photo of the cost of flour in a Nunavut community in 2017. A Nutrition North representative says the cost of flour after subsidies is now comparable to southern Canadian prices, because of COVID-19 funding. (CBC)

During the pandemic, the grant is helping community members spend more time on the land, which helps with physical distancing, he said. 

Funding was given out in April and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated said it was distributed to Inuit organizations in each of Nunavut’s three regions. 

The territorial Inuit organization said the grant helps to recognize hunting as a profession. 

In the Kivalliq region, harvesters can apply for support funds through the program to buy small equipment, safety equipment or to help with disaster relief, the Kivalliq Inuit Association said in a statement. Some communities have already begun using the funds. 

In Western Nunavut, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association is calling the grant the Nunami Pivvaalingniq Program, meaning filling our nutritional needs from the land.

It will start in the new fiscal year when each community hunters and trappers groups in the region will be given $30,000 to supply country food to residents, and to hire hunters to harvest caribou, musk-ox, seal and fish. 

The association will also hire a program manager to work on skills transfer, like traditional tool building, hunting safety training and a young hunters program. 

In the Qikiqtaaluk region, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association says it is planning to launch the program next year, but is focused for now on pandemic relief projects, which have included financial support for families and harvesters to spend more time on the land. Through the grant, Inuit harvesters in the region will see over $900,000 in support annually for the next five years.

Outside of Nunavut, Walsh said communities in northern Ontario used some of the money to purchase 23 community freezers. 


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