Healthy eating starts with healthy grocery stores

New project aims to make cheap, healthy foods available to Nunavummiut



CAMBRIDGE BAY – It’s no good telling people to eat healthy foods unless they know what foods are healthy, and can afford them.

That’s why Dr. Joel Gittelsohn from the John Hopkins School for Public Health launched a program he calls Healthy Stores. Last Friday, he arrived from Baltimore, Md., to take a look at western Nunavut where he hopes to set up the sixth Healthy Stores project.

“The idea is working with local communities, especially disadvantaged or low income communities, to increase the availability of healthy foods,” says Gittelsohn.

Gittelsohn decided to work with food stores about five years ago, and has since staged several “interventions.”

The project works by asking grocery store owners to increase the healthy foods on their shelves. Then, in exchange for them agreeing to stock those foods, the project leaders agree to promote them through educational displays, cooking demonstrations, recipes, special labels, and the local media.

“You can’t just say eat healthier foods because there’s a strong presumption that eating healthy is more costly,” says Gittelsohn.

The Nunavut project is still in the early stages. A group of local health professionals, including Dr. Roger Lake and Rhonda Reid from the department of health and social services, first heard about Healthy Stores about 10 months ago, from a visiting doctor who happened to be studying with Gittelsohn.

On March 18, about 150 people enjoyed caribou stew, char soup and bannock at a community feast to welcome Gittelsohn.

After everyone ate, Millie Kuliktana, of Kugluktuk, talked about the importance of eating well and getting enough exercise. Her lecture came only days after she appeared on CBC’s The National from the Northern Store in Kugluktuk, where Tang is cheaper than concentrated orange juice, and milk costs $17.95 for four litres.

Sangita Sharma, from the University of Hawaii, also arrived in Cambridge Bay in time for the feast. She has traveled the world studying the links between diet and disease in various ethnic groups. For this project, she wants to study diet before and after the intervention, so they can tell if it’s working. She also wants to make sure that the healthy foods they promote are culturally appropriate.

This week, Gittelsohn and Sharma will meet with community leaders, school groups and store managers in Cambridge Bay and Taloyoak to find out what people are eating, what foods should be promoted, and whether or not local businesses will co-operate.

In the past, businesses have given mixed responses to the concept, Gittelsohn says.

“It’s about finding the chains that have the most interest in the community, and that are willing to see beyond the hassle factor.”

However, he met with some Northern Store representatives in Winnipeg a few weeks ago, and says “it already sounds like the Northern Store is really strongly behind this work.”

In spite of the high costs of fruit and vegetables, Nunavummiut already have access to several healthy foods, even if they don’t know it.

Community health nurse Dee Ladouceur points to the concession stand run by the youth group after the community feast, which sold fruit juices, char jerky, muskox jerky, plain popcorn and buttered popcorn.

“We don’t have that much diabetes in Nunavut, so we want to stop it and not be like the First Nations down South,” says Ladouceur.

The Aboriginal Diabetes Foundation is funding the project.

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