Food insecurity is a major concern in communities in the Canadian Arctic. Indeed, food insecurity, which can be defined as “…limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in culturally appropriate ways…” is prevalent in Inuit households across the Arctic (Ready, 2016, p.266). Some researchers have suggested that food insecurity can be reduced by depending more heavily on country foods (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). Country foods are the wild foodstuffs obtained from traditional Indigenous economic activities, like hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. Consuming country foods may improve food security in households, and it may be healthier and more culturally-appropriate than store-bought foods.
This paper examines existing literature on northern food insecurity, evaluates the effectiveness of country food as a solution to food insecurity in Canadian Arctic communities, outlines potential barriers to country food access, and suggests future steps towards improving food security in the north. The existing literature on food insecurity in the Canadian Arctic can be thematically organized under three areas – the prevalence and household structural variations of food insecurity, factors contributing to food insecurity, and potential solutions to the food insecurity crisis. Taken as a whole, the literature summarizes the direness of food insecurity in Arctic communities. Researchers have examined how food insecurity levels vary across the Canadian Arctic. A study of Inuit households found that 62.6% of households could be classified as food insecure, and residents of these homes consumed more unhealthy, high-sugar food goods than those in food-secure homes (Huet, C.
, Rosol, R., & Egeland, G. M. 2012). Similarly, food insecure households are less likely to have an active hunter and consume fewer fruits, vegetables, and grains than those considered to be food secure (Huet, C., Rosol, R., & Egeland, G. M.
2012). Households with children are significantly more food insecure than households without children (Huet, Ford, Edge, Shirley, et al., 2017). This difference is attributed to the fact that households with children have higher retail food and household expenses (Huet, Ford, Edge, Shirley, et al., 2017). Food insecurity in homes with children are even higher when the primary food preparer in the household was female or had a low level of formal education (Huet, Ford, Edge, Shirley, et al., 2017). However, food security status does not generally differ between the seasons; households that are food insecure remain in such a situation throughout the year (Huet, Ford, Edge, Shirley, et al.
, 2017). Studies have also determined that there are several factors which contribute to food insecurity. One reason that households may be insecure is due to poor hunting conditions or a lack of time to engage these traditional activities (Ready, 2016). Another reason is that store-bought foods are extremely expensive, given the accumulated transportation costs, and incomes in Arctic communities are generally low (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). Purchased foods are also frequently low in nutritional value and unhealthy (heavily processed and high in fats and sugars), as these types of foods are the easiest to transport over distances and have a long shelf-life (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014).Finally, given the severity of food insecurity several solutions to this issue have been proposed. One solution is government subsidies on foods considered to be nutritious and perishable that are purchased in stores in isolated communities (Galloway, 2014). The federal government subsidy program Nutrition North was implemented across the Arctic in 2011 and is designed to make healthy, store-bought food more accessible to the northern population (Galloway, 2014).
Unfortunately, prices of market food remain high, in spite of these subsidies; for example, a 942-mL bottle of cooking oil is $10.92 in Kugluktuk (Galloway, 2014). Another solution is a greater reliance on country food that is acquired through hunting, gathering, fishing, and harvesting (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada). These foods are also healthier and more culturally appropriate in comparison to store-bought foods (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada). An evaluation of the effectiveness of country foods as a solution to food insecurity will be the focus of my research.Consuming country foods may be an effective solution to tackle food insecurity concerns in Arctic communities. Indeed, wild foods provide food for households and improve food security by acting as a facilitator of the sharing economy. Country foods also have the potential to better food security by contributing positively to the dietary health of populations.
Nonetheless, relying on country foods may not be the ultimate solution because there are numerous barriers experienced in accessing traditional hunting and harvesting activities. However, steps can be taken to encourage the consumption of country foods.Country foods provide food to Arctic communities meaning they are less dependent on store-bought foods. Most importantly, country foods are used as a part of the northern sharing economy. Arctic communities engage in the sharing of food to make access to food more consistent and predictable (McMillan, R., & Parlee, B.
2013). It is socially desirable to be viewed as a food sharer in the community, as it adheres to traditional Inuit values of reciprocity and cooperation (McMillan, R., & Parlee, B. 2013). Country foods are vital to the sharing economy because they provide food to be shared.
For example caribou hunters who have been successful will share their game with households who are unable to hunt, like single mothers or Elders (McMillan, R., & Parlee, B. 2013). This sharing provides food security as it gives households who would have previously been at-risk for food insecurity (i.e., single mothers) with a source of healthy food.
Another practice utilized in the sharing economy is commensalism, or community eating (Collings, P.,2011). This is the practice of sharing meals with others in the community by sitting down to eat a meal together, not simply giving away food and then preparing and eating it separately (Collings, P., 2011). Country foods are almost always used for commensalism; commercial foods are seldom used (Ready, E.
, 2018). Other research has concluded that community meals are one of the principal ways in which wild foods are shared between households in northern communities, as occurs among seal hunters in northern Canada who follow specific local customs regarding the sharing of each hunt (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). Thus, country foods are vital for the practice of commensalism, which itself improves food security through the sharing of food with other community members. Finally, community programs have been established to encourage the facilitation of the sharing economy, and these programs themselves improve food security levels. These programs attempt to semi-formalize the sharing economy by creating networks for sharing country foods. One such example is the community freezer initiative that exists in several northern communities, in which a large, industrial-size freezer is situated in the community and allows for hunters to store their extra meat to share with friends and family (Organ, J.
, Castleden, H., Furgal, C., Sheldon, T., & Hart, C. 2014).
Researchers in Nain, Nunatsiavut, undertook a study to explore the impacts of a community freezer on community residents. This freezer allows for hunters to share their game with others in the community (Organ, J., Castleden, H., Furgal, C.
, Sheldon, T., & Hart, C.2014). Researchers found that this particular freezer had cultural and spiritual advantages because it assisted in connecting Inuit residents with traditional Inuit hunting and sharing values(Organ, J., Castleden, H., Furgal, C., Sheldon, T.
, & Hart, C. 2014). The research also revealed that the freezer helped to ease feelings of food insecurity that had been perpetuated by economic distress (Organ, J.
, Castleden, H., Furgal, C., Sheldon, T., & Hart, C. 2014). Country foods are necessary for this initiative because they are the chief food stuffs that are a part of the sharing economy, which itself alleviates food insecurity. In conclusion, it is evident that country food improves food security by assisting to facilitate the sharing economy in Arctic Canadian communities.
Country food is also a viable solution to improving food security in the Canadian Arctic because it is more nutritious and healthy than commercial foods. Despite the fact that most commercial food in the Arctic is extremely expensive, such food also has little nutritional value and has high sugar and fat values (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). Store-bought foods do little to improve food security because they are unhealthy, with few essential vitamins and minerals, and may not be culturally appropriate. Contrastingly, traditional country foods are virtually unprocessed and have high nutritional values (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). One way that it is healthier is that is higher quantities of vitamins and minerals than nutritionally-poor commercial foods.
Indeed, research on the consumption of country foods (meat and berries) has found that it is substantially higher in iron, niacin, Vitamin C, and riboflavin than marketplace foods (Samson, C., & Pretty, J. 2006). These vitamins and minerals are crucial, especially as residents generally consume very few vegetables given their perishability, short shelf-life, and high cost in the north (Samson, C., & Pretty, J. 2006). Country foods are also more nutritious in that they have lower energy and unhealthy fat levels, but higher amounts of protein (Samson, C., & Pretty, J.
2006). A sample of 16 foods, 8 country foods and 8 store-bought foods, found that commercial foods had 75% more energy content than country foods, 37% less protein, and 4 times as much unhealthy fat (Samson, C., & Pretty, J. 2006).
Eating unhealthy store-bought foods may worsen the obesity problem in northern communities. For example, the IPY Inuit Health Survey found that 39.3% of Inuit children were considered overweight, and 28% obese(Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014,p.54). These figures are attributed to the “…
consumption of nutrient-poor, energy-dense, low-cost market food in northerncommunities” (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014,p.54). Country food, given its low energy content and high protein levels, has been connected to lower chronic health issues, coronary heart disease, strokes, and cholesterol levels that are present in Arctic communities(Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). These health issues are a result of the transition to a sedentary lifestyle, coupled with the consumption of high-energy commercial foods(Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). Clearly country food is much more nutritious than commercial foods. Its higher nutritional value means that it is beneficial in improving food security. However, while country food has multiple benefits, northern populations also experience barriers in accessing these wild foods. This implies that while country foods may be an excellent solution to Arctic food insecurity, more work must be done before country foods can be considered a feasible solution.
The two chief barriers to accessing country food are a lack of money and time, as well as the impacts of climate change. Hunting, fishing, trapping, and harvesting, all of which are ways in which country foods are acquired, is expensive and time consuming. Hunters have reported financial difficulties in affording the gas that is necessary for the snowmobiles that are required to travel to hunting sites (Skinner, K., Hanning, R. M., Desjardins, E., & Tsuji, L.
J. S., 2013). They also experience problems with purchasing all the costly equipment that is crucial for hunting, including snowmobiles, guns, and ammunition (Skinner, K., Hanning, R. M.
, Desjardins, E., & Tsuji, L. J. S., 2013). Hunting may be financially risky because hunters could spend money on fuel and travel to a hunting site but still return home without any meat. In this sense purchasing commercial foods is much safer and more predictable. Another barrier to obtaining county foods is the impacts of climate change on the Arctic.
It is well-understood that climate change is severely modifying the Arctic landscape and these changes affect hunters who rely on the land. The impacts of climate change include coastal erosion, changes in snow cover, unpredictable weather and seasonal events, and the thawing of permafrost (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). These environmental changes affect hunters in a variety of ways. For example, the spring melt may arrive sooner than it has historically, meaning that hunters are unable to access traditional spring hunting camps (Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, 2014). The changes also affect wildlife migration patterns; for example, hunters in one study explained that they had to change their hunting season due to the lack of snow cover because geese would not land where there was no snow (Skinner, K.
, Hanning, R. M., Desjardins, E., & Tsuji, L. J. S. 2013).
These barriers suggest that policy and program modifications are required to make country food more accessible so that its consumption may be considered a truly sustainable solution to Arctic food insecurity.Country food must be made more accessible if it is to act as a solution to food insecurity in the Canadian north. This requires policy and program change.
A potential change would be to increase the support given to the hunting assistance programs that currently exist in the Arctic. These programs are funded either by the government or independent hunting and harvesting organizations. For example, the Cree Hunters and Trappers Income Security Program assists Cree hunters with purchasing hunting, fishing and trapping equipment, transportation to and from hunt camps, compensates firearms courses, and the infrastructure necessary for food processing (Southcott, C.
, 2014). Another program example is that of the Nunavik Hunter Support Program that helps communities in the Nunavik area of Northern Quebec (Southcott, C., 2014). This program offers subsidies on equipment and fuel purchasing, as well as providing financial aid for the creation of traditional hunting equipment, like harpoons (Southcott, C., 2014). These programs encourage the consumption of country food in the north by assisting with the financial barriers that are frequently faced when one tries to engage in traditional economic activities. As such, further support for and development of these programs would help to improve food security in the north because it makes hunting, and consequently country food, more accessible to community members. To conclude, food insecurity is a critical concern in communities in the Canadian Arctic.
Country foods are a viable solution to this solution. Wild foodstuffs may improve food security levels by helping to facilitate the northern sharing economy and by being a good source of healthy, nutritionally-dense food. Nonetheless, northern residents face barriers to accessing country foods due to high financial costs and the impacts of climate change. If country food is to be considered a valid solution to food insecurity in the north then greater support must be given to existing programs which assist with and encourage traditional economic activities like hunting, fishing, trapping, and harvesting.
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