Hunger in Canada’s Arctic

Canada is a rich country. But food insecurity in the country’s north is as bad as in Siberia, leaving many Inuit families hungry.

$46 for a bag of flour. $36 for 2.5 lbs of beef. $45 for a box of infant formula. That’s just a trip to the grocery store for many residents of northern Canada’s Nunavut territory, where some of the most basic necessities could set you back as much as a rib-eye steak in a swanky restaurant in southern Canada or the U.S.

Note: Prices are in CAD — about 80 cents to the U.S. dollar as of publishing. Photos submitted by Angela Allurut, Josh Kalluk and Julia Chayuk Illuitok to Feeding My Family.

Groceries in Nunavut are often two to three times more expensive than the Canadian average. High transportation costs, poverty and other factors contribute to a region-wide problem: hunger and food insecurity.

Kirby Tungilik has experienced it first hand.

Nunavut territory. Kirby Tungilik lives in remote Gjoa Haven, far from the capital, Iqaluit.

Tungilik lives in Gjoa Haven, a village that’s home to some of the highest food prices in the territory.

The 30-year-old says he’s lucky: he’s got a full-time job at the local hockey arena and says he makes about $2,200 USD a month. Still, he says some months there might be four or five days when he can’t put any food on the table for his four young kids. Roughly 60 percent of kids in Nunavut are food insecure, which means they face limited or uncertain access to nutritious or safe foods. That’s four times more than the Canadian average.

“I know I have a job, but the job alone, it doesn’t help very much, because everything up here is so costly,” Tungilik says.

When most people think about Canada, a rich industrialized nation that’s often deemed one of the best places to live on earth, they usually don’t picture staggering hunger. But food insecurity in northern Canada “is actually, with the far eastern Russian region, the worst situation today in the Arctic,” says Mikå Mered, a political analyst focused on polar issues.

So why the heck is food so expensive up there?

There are a number of factors, but transportation is the biggest. Mered says there’s a lack of efficient infrastructure, like roads and sea ports, to transport goods in Canada’s Arctic — so most food is shipped by air, which is pricey. There’s also very little competition in the airline industry up north, says Mered, which keeps costs up. And without product competition or variety, retailers can hike up prices and still have a captive audience.

No, seriously. Photos: Angela Allurut

And why are Inuit hit so much harder by insane food prices?

In Canada’s Arctic, there’s a “poverty trap,” says Mered, and it has three parts:

  1. Less education limits job access: Mered says limited opportunities for post-secondary education in the Canadian Arctic means that “the average local in Nunavut is less educated than someone from the South.” That means a lot of the high-level jobs go to outsiders, who might get paid almost four times more than a local to attract them up north. And their high wages further inflate food prices.
  2. Food at the supermarket costs a ton: Without the education to get a high-paying job, that supermarket food is hard to pay for — let alone if you’re among the 1 in 5 Inuit who’s unemployed.
  3. People aren't hunting as much as before: Inuit relied on hunting and fishing for millennia, but colonization changed that. Now, they’re relying on a market system that’s outrageously expensive. Those who still know how to hunt may not have the time, because they’re working five days a week, often in low-paying jobs. Oh — and hunting itself is expensive: bullets, gas, and snowmobile parts add up.

So what are people doing about it?

The Canadian government does have a program to combat hunger in the Arctic — but it’s not necessarily effective. Nutrition North, launched in 2011, is designed to keep costs down by providing food subsidies to retailers, who are then supposed to pass on those discounts to consumers. The government says that Nutrition North is working, but a report last fall by the Auditor General of Canada slammed the program, saying it had failed to identify which communities needed the subsidies the most, and hadn't verified whether retailers were actually passing on the subsidy to consumers.

So Inuit people are fighting back themselves. One of the best-known activists is Leesie Papatsie, who started Feeding My Family, a 25,000-member Facebook group and organization aimed at raising awareness about hunger in the North. In response to her organization, other groups have sprung up in southern Canada, like Helping Our Northern Neighbours, which gets families in the South to send food boxes to families in the North, and Feeding Nunavut, which advocates for better food security policies.

And there are small, local groups, like the fledgling Anniumapkainiq Food Bank Committee in Gjoa Haven, of which Kirby Tungilik is a member. They’re hoping to raise funds for initiatives like a school lunch program, and to help with costly shipping fees for packages from Helping Our Northern Neighbours.

Tungilik hopes that with a little help, he and his neighbors can feed their kids — every day of the week.

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