Family

Food insecurity in Canada: One Nunavut family shares a day's meals

For many Canadian families, especially in Nunavut, getting three square meals is a daily struggle. We go inside the Far North’s food insecurity epidemic.

In partnership with Hellmann’s® Real Food Movement®

Nunavut

Iqaluit, Nunavut, one of many communities in the North where food is a luxury.

Leesee Papatsie stands in her kitchen, surveying the week’s grocery shopping for her family of three. In the half-dozen or so bags, there are several packages of meat, a few cans of juice from concentrate, a bunch of fresh celery and a package of fresh Brussels sprouts. There’s a bag of frozen potato patties, frozen waffles and french fries, canned soup, a sack of oranges and a few other items. The cost: $513.90.

That’s just a regular trip to one of the two main supermarkets in Iqaluit, says Papatsie, who is a mother of five, a grandmother of three and an advocate for food security in the North. A look at what she eats on an average day offers a window into the realities of feeding a family in Nunavut. While she and her husband, Bill, have good jobs and can afford the weekly grocery haul, the cost of food is too much for many people in her community to bear.

In her territory, 36.7 percent of the population are food insecure—meaning they don’t have access to the variety or quantity of food they need, due to lack of money. And they don’t want to talk about it. There is a real resistance among people in the North to speak up about their reality; most are embarrassed that they cannot afford to feed themselves and their families. This is why Papatsie is sharing what they typically eat in a day—because although they may not struggle so much to put food on the table, they’re surrounded by people who do.

Her day begins with a light breakfast by choice. It always includes home-brewed coffee ($26 for a large can) and maybe toast (around $5.50 for a loaf of bread) with margarine ($15.49 for a 1.81-kilogram tub). If she were to slather on some jam, a 500-millilitre jar costs $9.99. For her breakfast, Papatsie’s teenaged daughter typically has either cereal with milk, or toast.

Food costs more in the North, in part because of how expensive it is to transport—everything has to be shipped to the Arctic between June and October, when the sea ice has thawed, or flown up during the rest of the year. (People with means can order food from areas to the south and pay to have it shipped in.) The federal government’s Nutrition North Canada food subsidy program helps reduce what retailers pay to transport food, based on weight, to make fresh goods more accessible. Despite this, northerners say the costs are still too high.

High food prices are a common complaint in the Facebook group Papatsie founded in 2012 that now has more than 24,000 followers. Called Feeding My Family, it’s a forum for people to speak out and share warnings about high prices. In creating this group, Papatsie has helped shine a light on food insecurity in the North, forcing the rest of the country to face it, too. And yet many are still loath to discuss it—some members of the Facebook group have even been reprimanded by relatives for airing their dirty laundry. “I want to raise awareness of the problems here,” Papatsie says. “And I also want to encourage Nunavummiut to stand up to something that isn’t right.”

Lesee Papatsie's weekly grocery shopping totalled more than $500.

Recently, a week’s grocery shopping cost Leesee Papatsie’s family more than $500.

Even worse than expensive food is expensive food that’s not even edible—another hot topic on Feeding My Family. Papatsie knows this well. Because stale bread is so common, she shops around for the freshest loaves she can find, but that’s the least of her problems. Add to that spoiled fruit, vegetables and even meat. “The stores sell rotten chicken, bacon. They’re pretty good at covering up the smell,” she says. (When contacted for this piece, a representative for one of the grocery chains in Iqaluit and other communities said he had not seen evidence of this problem and would offer a full refund to any customer who experienced this.) The Nunavut Food Security Coalition, an organization dedicated to addressing food issues in the territory, has also heard these complaints. Still, the problem continues, says Papatsie.

For now, families with stocked cupboards look after those without. “Inuit share with brothers, sisters, cousins,” says Papatsie. This may drive their grocery bill higher, but it’s important to Papatsie and her husband. “If the Inuit people didn’t share their food, there would be starvation.”

Just before noon, they both head home from work and prepare a big hot lunch to feed their daughter and any friends she brings along. Bill is typically in charge of cooking. He’ll heat up a can of chicken noodle soup ($5.39), open a tin of corned beef ($5.19) or make some macaroni and cheese ($2.95 a box) with hot dogs ($7.45 for 450 grams).

Another obstacle in the quest for sustenance is the collapse of the North’s traditional food system. For millenniums, Inuit have relied on “country food”—hunted game meat like Arctic char, whale and caribou. This is Papatsie’s favourite way to eat, so she fishes and hunts as much as she can. But wildlife isn’t nearly as available in Iqaluit these days, due to climate change, shifts in animal populations, hunting bans for conservation purposes and other environmental factors. And the prevalence of poverty makes it more difficult, since hunting equipment is expensive and can take a long time to ship in.

At the end of the day, she and Bill make another large meal—they might have a family member and a friend or two drop by, but Papatsie never minds the company. “Feeding someone is a good feeling,” she says. Supper often features country food of some kind. From recent fishing and hunting trips, Papatsie brought back Arctic char and ptarmigan (a game bird), but it didn’t last long. They kept only a few of the fish and birds, and passed the rest on to other families.

When there’s no country food, she will typically cook chicken ($13.59 per kilogram for thighs) with boiled potatoes ($10 for 10 pounds) and frozen corn ($4.85 for 750 grams). “We are meat eaters,” she says of the Inuit food culture. But because hunting is less common and meat is pricey, Papatsie says many people build their meals around processed foods. “Low-income families buy stomach fillers,” she says. “It could be rice, pasta, macaroni and cheese. You get the most for your buck. They are cheaper, but they are filling.” Nutrition is compromised in the name of affordability, even to make sure the littlest bellies are full, Papatsie says. “Moms give their babies canned milk or powdered juice because it’s the cheapest.”

And so hunger persists. “We’ve heard many people from the South say they don’t believe this is happening in Canada,” she says. “It’s one of this country’s best kept secrets.”

What is food insecurity?

In the US, “food desert” is the term for a neighbourhood or area where it’s hard to find fresh, healthy, affordable food. Across Canada, accessing sufficient food is tied to how much money you have as well as geography. In urban centres, there is ample food for sale—the problem is that in lower-income neighbourhoods, people simply can’t pay for it. Also, healthy food retailers are often outnumbered by places that stock junk, resulting in what’s known as a “food swamp.” When people can’t access healthy groceries on a regular basis, they experience what’s called food insecurity.

“Four million Canadians are food insecure,” says Nick Saul, CEO and executive director of Community Food Centres Canada. “People who are unsure of where their next meal will come from or who are skipping meals so their kids can eat—this happens a lot in this country.” At 45.2 percent, Nunavut has by far the highest rate of food insecurity in the country, but nearly 13 percent of Canadian households don’t have enough healthy food. For families with children, it’s even higher—one in every six Canadian kids lives in a food-insecure household.

For a more in-depth look at the issues surrounding food insecurity in Canada’s North, visit chatelaine.com to read “When $500 isn’t enough to buy groceries for a week.”