Nunavummiut speak out to feed their families

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Photo: Feeding My Family

Two years ago, communities across Nunavut joined together to speak out against the shockingly high food prices in the north, protesting in front of local grocery stores. This was the first time such actions had been organized in the remote, fly-in communities of Canada's northernmost territory. Feeding My Family (FMF) is the movement that grew out of these protests. The Facebook site quickly grew to over 19,000 members, and FMF has provided a forum for Nunavummiut to come together to share personal struggles and expose the impacts of hunger in the north. Members have been posting photos of the exorbitant food costs in the north, showing prices as high as $28 for a head of cabbage and $99 for a whole fish.

Nunavut is the home of the Inuit, and its small population has survived from hunting, fishing and gathering. Traditional practices are strong and hunting for sustenance remains an important part of life, but a legacy of colonization (such as the permanent settlements and residential schools) is that Inuit cannot eat as their ancestors did. Many hunters cannot afford the cost of hunting equipment, and country foods harvested from the land must now be supplemented with store-bought foods.

There are many statistics on hunger in Nunavut, including estimates that 70 per cent of households are food insecure. But beyond statistics, FMF aims to bring out the voices behind these numbers, serving as a space for Nunavummiut to speak out about how hunger is affecting their families.

A member posted, "…saw three kids eating at the dump[. I] told them not to eat at the dump that [they're] going to get sick[. O]ne kid said… price too high mom can't really buy good food too much. Told the kids hop on my honda [we're] going [to] my place I will cook something for you to eat proper food not outdated food from the dump… my heart broke to pieces when I saw them eating at the dump..."

Many describe their struggles to buy healthy food, children going to bed hungry and not attending school, and poor quality food (often past the expiry date) and limited variety in stores. A recent survey found that food prices in Nunavut are on average 140 per cent higher than the rest of Canada, and the average cost to feed a family of four can reach almost $2,000 per month. With the extremely high costs of living in the north, many have to choose between buying food and paying bills.

Members are concerned about the limited employment opportunities, overcrowded housing and high costs of freight, airfare and internet service. Nunavut's median annual income is $28,500, with almost 40 per cent of the population receiving social assistance. There are very few food banks set up in the territory and, although food sharing networks are strong, many describe the stress of having to provide for or depend on their extended family for food.

A member posted, "I had to go over to Social Services and ask for some food too. I go hungry so my kids can eat too, yes we all have family to help but they also have kids, right? I try my best not to ask from my siblings only when we badly need help that's when I seek help..."

FMF members are calling on governments and retailers to do more to address hunger in Nunavut. Much of the criticism has focused on Nutrition North Canada (NNC), the federal freight subsidy program that replaced the Food Mail program in 2011. Food Mail used to subsidize northern residents directly, but NNC now subsidizes the retailers, rationalizing that it will trickle down to customers.

Two food retailers have a virtual monopoly in Nunavut (Northwest Company and Arctic Cooperatives), and they stand to profit greatly. FMF members contend that NNC is not actually lowering food costs in the communities, and the photos of food prices posted on Facebook are serving as a form of price monitoring. There have been accusations that NNC is selectively reporting food costs based on unverified price information, and the Auditor General of Canada is currently conducting a performance audit of NNC.

FMF is about uniting Northerners as a collective voice. It has been a catalyst for community-based solutions, facilitating other spin-off groups to address hunger in the north. Protesting is not something Inuit traditionally do, but adapting and working together has been the way Inuit have always survived the harsh arctic environment. Hunger had been fought by the ancestors, and it is fought again today using different techniques.

The food protests two years ago drew worldwide attention to the reality of hunger in Canada's north, and FMF works to continue bringing awareness to the rest of Canada and the world.

You can support FMF by visiting the website, joining the Facebook group and sharing it widely in their community, and contacting their Member of Parliament.

Photo: Feeding My Family 

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