Food insecurity grew worse in Nunavut following Nutrition North, says study

“More effective initiatives to address food insecurity in Canada’s North are urgently needed”

The federal government’s Nutrition North program helps subsidize the cost of certain foods in Nunavut, such as this instant oatmeal in Iqaluit’s Arctic Ventures Marketplace store. A new study, published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, finds that food insecurity actually rose in Nunavut after Nutrition North’s introduction. (Photo by Emma Tranter)

By John Thompson

Food insecurity in Nunavut grew worse following the introduction of Nutrition North Canada, according to new research published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

“Food insecurity was a pervasive problem in Nunavut before Nutrition North Canada, but it has become even more prevalent since the program was implemented,” the study states.

“Given the important health consequences of food insecurity, more effective initiatives to address food insecurity in Canada’s North are urgently needed.”

Drawing on data from the Canadian Community Health Survey from 2007 to 2016, the researchers looked at reports of food insecurity in Nunavut’s 10 largest communities.

They found food insecurity affected 33.1 per cent of households in 2010, the year before the launch of Nutrition North. That rose to 39.4 per cent of households in 2011, the year of the program’s launch, and later reached 46.6 per cent of households in 2014, the year after Nutrition North’s full implementation.

That means that food insecurity in Nunavut rose by 13.2 percentage points over that period.

Nutrition North replaced the Food Mail Program, which paid an air freight subsidy to Canada Post for the delivery of certain foods and non-food items.

Nutrition North took a more market-driven approach, by transferring money directly to southern suppliers and northern retailers, who are expected to pass this subsidy on to consumers. The program also put a greater focus on subsidizing perishable, nutritious foods.

The federal government has reported that Nutrition North has led to more perishable, nutritious foods being shipped north, and a lower price for a standardized food basket. That seems to be at odds with the report’s findings that food access has worsened.

“One possible interpretation for the coexistence of these conflicting trends may be that Nutrition North Canada led to greater consumption of subsidized foods among the most affluent households, while compromising food access among economically vulnerable households because of the removal of the subsidy for common non-perishable foods and essential items,” the report states.

“Hence, the retail subsidy and nutrition ­education component may have primarily stimulated demand among households that could already afford perishable, nutritious foods.”

The federal government’s main motivation for introducing Nutrition North was to contain costs. But the report’s authors say the program’s market-driven approach is “highly questionable given that there are few retailers and little competition in most eligible communities, and a substantial portion of the targeted population has difficulty accessing the market economy because of poverty.”

A better approach, the researchers say, is to simply provide the needy with more money.

“There is growing evidence that policy interventions improving the economic resources of households through cash transfers or in­kind benefits reduce food insecurity in affluent countries,” the report states.

“Given our results, it is imperative to determine the extent to which similar initiatives adapted to the needs and realities of northern populations could affect food insecurity.”

An accompanying commentary, also published today by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, shares the same concerns as the report’s authors, but also suggests that other factors are at play in making Nunavut’s food insecurity worse.

“Even without Nutrition North Canada, would rates of food insecurity have increased?” the commentary asks. “Other lines of evidence suggest they might have.”

Today’s youth are less likely to learn how to hunt, the commentary states. And Nutrition North’s arrival coincided with the rise of online sales of country foods on Facebook, which the commentary describes as “a controversial development that some see as disrupting food-sharing networks and increasing food insecurity among poorer households by increasing reliance on store foods.”

As well, Nunavut’s households have become even more overcrowded, and this overcrowding tends to be linked with food insecurity.

Dwindling caribou populations also likely contributed to more Nunavut residents going hungry, the commentary states.

“Harvest restrictions and declining wildlife abundance have the potential to exacerbate food insecurity by increasing reliance on store foods, reducing income-earning opportunities, disrupting sharing networks, and limiting opportunities for youth to acquire harvesting knowledge and skills.”

But the commentary’s authors agree that Nutrition North appears to be an ineffective way to improve food access.

“The absence of price caps, program accountability and transparency, and limited responsiveness to community needs, have been noted to undermine the ability of the program to meet its goals, along with a neglect of traditional foods and their cultural significance in Nutrition North Canada’s support mechanisms.”

But even if Nutrition North were fixed, more actions would still need to be taken, the commentary’s authors say.

“Policy changes are required to strengthen harvester support programs (e.g., funding for hunter and trapper organizations), invest in infrastructure and skills development, and support community wellness programs, and must accompany broader efforts focused on poverty reduction, community development, and reconciliation and healing.

“Recognizing the need for such cross­cutting systemic action, the Nunavut Food Security Strategy proposes a collective vision and common agenda for impact rooted in Inuit values and knowledge. If we are to avoid going “from bad to worse,” such a vision needs to underpin all our efforts.”

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(26) Comments:

  1. Posted by rIch getting richer, poor… on

    unbelievable – Northwest Company and Arctic Co-ops limited are given free money by the government while the northerners are going hungry!!

    • Posted by Calling it like I see it on

      The food prices up here are definitely too expensive. I understand why though. It costs more sending products up to these isolated areas. Such is life. However, I don’t think it’s fair to say “Northerner’s are going hungry” insinuating that this is the fault of the grocery stores, or the government. I have seen first hand what happens (all to frequently) when the social assistance cheques, and child tax cheques come in. Instead of going to the stores to get food for their families, people are cashing those cheques and seeking out the local bootlegger, or dealer. How about instead of dropping $125 for a mickey, or $300 for a 26’er you spend that money on the necessities of life. Now I know that this isn’t everyone, I AM NOT painting all Northerner’s with the same brush. However it seems like the ones who complain the most about their financial/household situations are the ones I’ve described above.

      • Posted by Nunavik on

        Here in Kuujjuaq , its $60/mickey

      • Posted by Tommy on

        Even though I don’t drink alcohol, I still went hungry. Labeling the way you see as it is means you don’t go out much, professing to understand the economics. Even when people don’t do alcohol or drugs, they still get hungry. Profiling and labeling Inuit in their daily struggles suggest you are able ignorant bastard. My hope is that you will have a slight of pity towards a people who didn’t want to be where they are now. Oppression and humiliation only makes it worst.

    • Posted by GOING AS PLANNED on

      Of course they are !
      Why do you think they brought it out in the first place ?
      One day Nunavut people will start voting for people who
      will actually care and help them.
      But don’t hold your breath.

  2. Posted by Why u dum on

    The first thing they could do is: review the way they tax Nunavut Northern Allowance, they tax it like it like income, when the Nunavut government thinks it is a cost of living allowance, to help off set the high cost of housing and food. THis is how it should be done, put that money in my pay check, that way I can spend it the way I want,,

    • Posted by Northern Guy on

      All the variations designed to off-set the high cost of living in the north (northern benefits, isolated post payments, travel assistance etc.) are not allowances and were never seen as tax free. They are and always will be considered taxable income.

  3. Posted by Northern Guy on

    I have a very hard time accepting anything in a supposedly peer reviewed journal that uses the words “may have” or “could have”. I have much more faith in the additional commentary provided by the CMA that examines external forces like dwindling populations of important harvested animals and an overall drop in number of young people actively harvesting as drivers behind the rise in food insecurity. If the results of this article are to be believed then the only the appropriate policy response from the federal government would the complete elimination of NNC and the implementation of a needs-based food stamp program. Selecting either option would likely have disastrous consequences for Nunavummiut.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      That’s exactly the way things are written in quality peer-reviewed journals. Alarms bells start going off when the author speaks in certainties.

  4. Posted by I have an idea… on

    Bring back food mail!!!

  5. Posted by Okay on

    The government should work closer with Amazon as that seems to be working in Iqaluit. Also improve the old foodmail. Also provides the subsidies to nwc and coop. Then let everyone compete. Everyone in Nunavut now has a credit card. It a win-win for everyone.

    • Posted by Inuk from the North on

      Yes I agree with the amazon company, the amazon should build a store up in the north where we can get more out of our money for other things.

      I work and support my children and family but still I struggle to put food on the table. I spend 1000 every two weeks just to feed my family and I only buy clothes when I get my Income tax.

      We need a store that is reasonable prices and the NWC should think twice because we are looking elsewhere.


    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      I had always understood that Amazon had determined that working in Nunavut was not profitable and that the only reason that they are in Iqaluit is that delivery to every provincial or territorial capital is required as part of their agreement to operate in Canada.

      Can anyone tell me if I am correct, or if I am mistaken? If this is correct, how on earth would we ever encourage them to operate in Nunavut? What incentives could we offer?

  6. Posted by nunalik on

    check out Clyde River northern store the only store in Clyde even at their Tim Horton small coffee almost $4

    • Posted by Phew! on

      Good thing you don’t need a shitty Tim Horton’s coffee.

  7. Posted by Wendy Presant on

    I don’t understand why there aren’t massive hydroponic projects in the north. The initial equipment would need to be shipped up, and the seed, but after that it would be self sustaining. Regina, Saskatchewan has invested in hydroponic garden towers for it’s food bank, and the advantage of having them indoors is that food can be grown all year around, without concern for weather or land use. Seems to me that providing the north with ways to generate foods makes way more sense than continuing to ship food which costs a fortune. Here’s a link to what I am writing about:

    • Posted by Hydroponic on

      The problem isn’t the cost of food, it is education. Go to the Northern on Tax day and see what families are buying: 48 cans of pop at $3 a can, 12 bags of chips at $7.99, and 5 frozen pizzas at $20 a pop. There you have it. $400 down the drain and not a single bit of nutritious food. Give a kid a $20 bill and he’ll probably see how many lollypops he can buy with it.

      There are some communities in Nunavut with greenhouses (that offer very affordable vegetables, at that) but it is mostly qaalunat that support them. If Co-op and Northern had incentive to stop supplying Inuit with crap and sell more wholesome goods, we might see a change. NNC works as an incentive to reduce the cost on healthy options, but if Inuit keep spending tax credits and paycheck on expensive food with little nutritious value, NNC doesnt work.

      • Posted by iThink on

        These are good points and true; the issues here are multidimensional and irreducible to prices alone. Lack of knowledge and a poor ability to discriminate between nutritious and healthy foods versus easy and empty calories is as crippling as costs.

    • Posted by Nortthern Guy on

      Hydroponics/greenhouses will never be the answer to food insecurity in the North for three reasons: cost, scalability and nutritional value. With construction costs hovering at over $400 per square metre building a hydroponics/greenhouse facility large enough to provide enough produce to consistently sustain a community of even a few thousand people would be in the millions of dollars, not to mention the exorbitant cost of heating and lighting such a facility for the 7 or so months of the year when there is insufficient ambient daylight to grow anything. Scalability is the second issue, very few in the north have the expertise or skills sets to run what would be a commercially-scaled food operation. Finally nutritional value, Northerners and more specifically Inuit survived on a protein-rich diet that consisted primarily of the fat and meat harvested from animals and fish. Expecting them to simply switch to a plant-based diet is not only unreasonable it is unrealistic and would likely result in a series of adverse health outcomes. The best (and likely only thing) thing that can be done to reduce food insecurity is to encourage policy interventions that would permit Inuit to hunt in greater numbers so that country food can be made more widely accessible to community members.

  8. Posted by Putuguk on

    What a pile of highfaluting navel gazing. As is very common in the north, we see confusion between correlation and causation.

    The population of Nunavut during the report period grew 12% from 33,352 In 2010, to 37,552 in 2017. That is like adding a Rankin Inlet and a Cambridge Bay in less than a decade. That is 5,200 new mouths to feed, as we all know, mainly in low income, dependent families. The report sort of gets it. They say overcrowding is getting worse. Here is a clue – its not because there are less houses.

    They get off base as they assume that Nutrition North is the main variable affecting food security with all other things basically remaining the same. These are false assumptions.

    The price of food generally in Canada has risen during this period at least 15%. Every Canadian is paying more, and more southern Canadians are food insecure, without them having access to Nutrition North. The money Ottawa has added to the program over the years has barely kept pace with this change.

    The main change over this period is more people having kids that they cannot support. Lo and behold, the increase in food insecurity in Nunavut (13%) is almost the same as the increase in population (12%).

    When you confuse correlation with causation, it grossly skews your recommendations.
    Adding money and giving people more money is not a solution.

    If that were the solution, at any point in the past as we have seen government expenditures rise from a few hundred million to over $2B a year in our territory, our wellness would have improved. For the majority, it has not. We need to stop our unsustainable population growth and reduce the number of children born into poverty.

    • Posted by BIG TOE on

      A very good comment and I hope it is successful !
      Although this has been tried many times before.
      I reckon people are gonna do, what they wanna do.
      TAKE CARE.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Excellent, I’m so glad that someone brought up the population growth issue. We pussy foot around it so much, but it is something that we need to address head on, but it is such a sensitive topic. I don’t know if we will ever be able to provide the sort of health care, education, and employment that we want to if the population keeps growing the way it is.

  9. Posted by Inuk Person on

    If Canada wants to assert sovereignty, it should do more for her people; invest in infrastructure (railroads & roads to Nunavut to make everything cheaper); build more houses in Nunavut; and station border guards in strategic locations. Maybe then, Canada will be recognized as having total control over the Arctic/Northwest Passage.

    Poor Inuit living in Third World conditions, being left out (I know Nunavut receives a lot of federal transfers). Maybe we’re better off joining another country? It’s a rhetorical question.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Who would want us? It would be massively expensive to to bring us up to first-world standards. It would be like when West Germany absorbed East Germany. Railroads and roads would be a great first start though, you hit that on the head. Look at the difference between the Yukon and here. Yes, they have a more skilled population, but a lot of it is very simply down to ease of transportation.

    • Posted by PooPoo on

      Roads and railways are not likely to be the solution given the economics of such projects, which needs to account for huge distances is some of the most adverse conditions on earth to build them. I don’t have the answers, but I do think we will need to be more innovative than the 19th century.

  10. Posted by Let’s Slow Down & Let’s Speed Up on

    Two issues that are rarely discussed, but are absolute biggies:
    1. Nunavumiut, we have to slow down our birth rate (a lot and starting now) — this will take pressure off of families, relatives, and all services and support systems so that resources (including country food and money for store-bought food) can go farther to better meet needs (food, plus housing, health care, etc., etc.)
    2. Nunavumiut, we need to speed up graduation rates — especially beyond high school, whether it’s trades, apprentice programs, NAC, colleges, university, etc (training done within Nunavut and other places). This will lead to well paying jobs, which will obviously provide proper household budgets for food. Positive results could be seen within just three years or so. There are lots of good jobs available, but people need to get their qualifications to fill those positions!
    (And actually, it has to start earlier, too — stop allowing kids to be non-attenders at school as young as Grade 1 or 2. Seriously. And, it’s ironic because all Nunavut schools run food programs — if kids would attend every day, they would get the benefit of both an education and food in their tummies.)

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