Beyond the grocery store: Feeding Québec’s Far North

Beyond the grocery store: Feeding Québec’s Far North

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Ruby Pratka

Fran Abraham lives in Kuujjuarapik, a village with a population of about 700 on the shores of Hudson Bay in Nunavik, far northern Québec, 1,100 kilometres northwest of Montréal.

As is the case for the other 13 villages of Nunavik, people and goods from outside Kuujjuarapik must be flown in. Twice a month, Abraham goes to the local co-op store to stock up on food for her family – herself, her partner, her six-month-old baby and her younger brother.

“For the baby, I always have to have in stock five cases of formula, eight or ten four-litre water bottles to mix formula, four cases of diapers and a case of wipes. With that, he should be good for a month. A case of formula is about $30, a case of diapers $30, a case of wipes $50. So that adds up to close to $500. And that’s just for the baby.”

She estimates that food for the entire household totals close to $1,600 per month. Even with a full-time job at the local housing authority, she has to weigh every single purchase.

“I wish it was easier to shop online and get food shipped here; I’ve tried to order food from [a store in Laval], but the shipping costs more than the food, so I just put up with the prices here.”

The cost of everyday food products in Nunavik is enough to send many outsiders into sticker shock. A 2011 Université Laval study, released as a subsidy program was being implemented, found that a dozen eggs can cost more than $4.00 (compared to $2.91 in Québec City), a frozen pizza more than $15 (compared to $8.66 in Québec City), a 10-pound sack of flour $28 (compared to just under $16 in Québec City) and a bag of onions $3.35 (compared to $2.14 in Québec City).

The study found that frozen products cost twice as much in Nunavik as in Québec City, while fresh fruits and vegetables cost close to one and a half times as much and non-perishable products, such as flour and canned goods, nearly twice as much. In 2016, despite the implementation of a federal subsidy program, a similar study reveals that Nunavik residents spend nearly one and a half times as much on food as Québec City families.

All in all, Nunavik families spend an average of close to 40 per cent of their income on food, compared to 15 per cent for Québec City families. Fresh fruit and vegetables are particularly unaffordable, according to Inuit youth leader Andrea Brazeau, from Kangiqsualujjuaq.

“We’ve seen strawberries that are $8, and one of my teachers sent me a picture of grapes that were $31. With prices like that, people just have to buy what they can, whether it’s healthy or not.”

As a result, many people go hungry, according to Léa Laflamme, a public health nutritionist with the Kativik Regional Government (KRG), the Nunavik regional authority. “One in four people in Nunavik don’t get enough to eat,” she says. “In the rest of the province, it’s less than one in ten.”

She explains that the high cost of imported food, the logistical problems associated with traditional food-gathering methods like hunting, and overall higher rates of poverty in Nunavik combine to create high levels of food insecurity.

“There have been many changes in the past 50 years,” she explains. “Before, the Inuit were nomads; and now communities are formed around services and people can’t follow the animals like before. Many also have jobs which leave less time for hunting and less time for teaching young people to hunt and prepare local food. For imported food, the biggest factors are the cost of flying it in and preserving it.”

Université Laval sociologist Gérard Duhaime coauthored both the 2011 and 2016 cost-of-living studies, and several other studies on the cost of living in Nunavik. He explains that transporting food from southern wholesalers to northern communities is a long and costly process.

“Transport and packaging costs are very high, and everyone takes their cut, from processing, to packaging, to flying the food in, to distribution. It’s a chain with so many middlemen. And you can’t save money by using economies of scale, because in many cases we’re talking about villages of 400 to 600 people. There’s also very little competition. There are no roads – you can’t just go to the next neighbourhood to buy something that’s on sale. Even if there are two stores competing, rather than a single monopoly, that does very little to bring prices down. You eat what’s in the store, at the cost in the store, and what the hunters in your family can get you.”

Perishable foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are most often flown in, while canned goods and other non-perishable staples are brought in by boat, explains Jean Boucher, MNA for the riding of Ungava, which includes all of Nunavik. “It’s not that the food is missing, per se, but getting it there is more complicated. Sometimes, especially in smaller villages, nature decides that the plane can’t land, and then you have no food on the shelves for several days.”

Natan Obed is the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), an advocacy group that represents Inuit across the Canadian Arctic. He says the high prices of southern-produced commercial food, climate change and the challenges of modern hunting and fishing create a vicious circle that leads many families into poverty.

“We depend very heavily on traditional food, like caribou, which has become less plentiful over time,” he says. “Within a ten-year period, for example, the George River caribou herd, in northern Québec and Labrador, went from 800,000 animals to less than 10,000 animals. We don’t know exactly why. That creates huge challenges for food security, because people have depended on this meat for years and now they’re forced to go to the store and buy food that’s more expensive and less nourishing.”

“Evey kid grows up with hunting and fishing,” adds Brazeau, 20. “Fifteen years ago, my dad says you only had to go two kilometres from town to find caribou, but the first time I went on a caribou hunt we had to travel seven hours… my younger brother hasn’t even seen his first caribou.”

Even when “country food” is plentiful, not everyone can access it. Nine-to-five jobs and school obligations keep many Inuit from leaving their communities for days-long hunting trips. “We go hunting for a month in the spring to stock up on geese, fish, black bear, ptarmigan, rabbit, otter, beaver and in the fall, snow geese, porcupine and so on. But it all depends on if we are able to get off work,” says Fran Abraham.

For families without a breadwinner, the main obstacle is the cost of equipment. “People don’t have the money to get out on the land anymore because hunting these days is done with Ski-Doos and boats, which require capital that our poorer families just can’t invest,” says Natan Obed. “We have a young population and sometimes the youth aren’t learning to hunt the way their parents did, so they depend on store-bought food. All of this results in 70 per cent of our people across the country, from Labrador to the Yukon, not getting enough to eat.”

This has ripple effects on schoolchildren in Inuit communities, says the ITK leader. “Kids are going to school hungry; they don’t have the necessary food they need to develop. That creates huge challenges for the educational system, and it’s holding back the potential of Inuit society.”

The federal government’s main response to concerns about food accessibility in the North has been a subsidy program, called Nutrition North, implemented in 2011. The program compensates shipping and stocking companies for part of the cost associated with transporting designated food to Northern communities. Valérie Haché, spokesperson for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), points to an explanation on the program’s website: “To help reduce the cost of perishable nutritious food in eligible isolated, northern communities, NNC provides subsidies directly to registered Northern retailers, Southern suppliers, and country food processors and distributors, who…are accountable for passing on the full subsidy to consumers by reducing the price of subsidized food.”

Subsidies on Level 1 foods, considered the most nutritious, vary from $2.60 per kilo in Kuujjuaq, the largest town in Nunavik, to $5.50 per kilo in Ivujivik, at the tip of the Ungava Peninsula. Country food sold in local stores is also subsidized.

“Before the current subsidy program started [in 2011], I used to pay a lot more for food, closer to $1,000 per week,” Abraham says.

Subsidized stores in Nunavik are run by the Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec (FCNQ), a mainly Inuit-run organization that also oversees the transportation of supplies. Although the FCNQ did not respond to requests for comment, Boucher praised their work. “I wouldn’t say they abuse their monopoly; they’re there to make food available at reasonable prices, even if it is much more expensive than in the South.”

However, the program has drawn criticism for basing its calculations on a list of foods determined by non-Inuit, for not always proving that the full subsidy is passed on to consumers, and for reducing food costs in some communities by as little as four per cent.

“It’s an excellent concept, but more can be done to improve it,” says Obed. “Many of the prices are still out of range of what is accessible. I’d like to see a better country food sharing network, where a village that has an abundance of beluga or caribou is better able to distribute it to the surrounding villages. In Greenland, for example, markets have been established for sharing country food… the ideal would be to have food security based on our own food choices.”

Some Inuit communities have taken matters into their own hands by organizing community food-sharing initiatives. ITK recently launched an online directory to catalogue these initiatives and make it easier for communities to share ideas.

“It’s exciting for us when a community comes together to support their neighbours, whether through food banks or soup kitchens or greenhouses or anything that involves creating low-cost, nutritious meals,” Obed says.

“People need to know that we’re not just sitting in the cold doing nothing,” says Brazeau. “We have a community freezer, which people fill up with fish for people in need. But you can’t just survive off fish. I know it’s hard to make fruits and vegetables more accessible, but it would be a big help.”

“In Nunavik, we’ve been developing a co-ordinated food security program for the past two years,” says Laflamme. “The Kativik Regional Government is managing a hunter support program in all 14 communities that allows hunters to sell meat to a community food fridge; the meat is delivered to people in need and the hunters are reimbursed for certain fees. In three communities there are CLSCs that coordinate with fishermen to distribute fish to pregnant women. In Kuujjuaq, there are also community greenhouses where families can grow vegetables, and community kitchen projects where families cook together using provided ingredients. The Kativik School Board provides breakfast in schools.”

“There’s no one magic solution for food security,” Laflamme says. “We still have a lot of work to do, and everyone needs to contribute.”


About Author

Ruby Pratka

Ruby Pratka grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied in Ottawa and took the roundabout way to Quebec City via Russia, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Belgium and East Africa. In addition to writing for and Life in Québec Magazine, she also contributes to other media outlets in English and French. She enjoys keeping a close eye on international affairs, listening to good music and singing in large groups.

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