Larkin Schmiedl's Blog

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What’s behind the high cost of food in Canada’s North?

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Food insecurity in the Northwest Territories remains a pressing issue

High food prices in the Northwest Territories aren’t new, but what isn’t often talked about is the struggle many across the territory face to simply eat. In Inuvik, a trucker comes up from B.C. every two weeks to sell fresh produce from his truck—but he can’t make it year-round. Remote communities throughout the N.W.T. increasingly rely on food banks. Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, population 117, receives government funding to feed its homeless people. Wrigley, population 153, Paulatuk, 327, and Ulukhaktok, 428, do the same.

Myriad factors mean these Arctic hamlets need food banks: The high costs of operating grocery stores in the North, climate change, the decline of wild foods (called country food in the North), cultural change, resource extraction, and environmental contamination create a situation where food is inaccessible. In a territory where borders have changed drastically since Canada was created, big changes continue to occur.

Indigenous people make up exactly half the N.W.T.’s population of 44,469, with most non-Indigenous living in the city of Yellowknife.

“People were largely self-sufficient,” says France Benoit, president of the Yellowknife Farmer’s Market. “But then what happened is when they put the road in, it’s no different than anywhere else in Canada—all of a sudden, food is being trucked from elsewhere.”

In Inuvik, population 3,140, there is one food bank, a homeless shelter, and a community lunch program. At the food bank, demand is outstripping donations so community members now must pay small sums for discounted flats of food. According to a 2013 peer-reviewed paper by James D. Ford, the town has a food insecurity rate of 43 percent—five times the Canadian average.

Benoit says colonial settlement deeply affected food systems in the N.W.T. “[Indigenous groups] were going to the barren lands and then coming back according to the seasons,” she says. “They were using entire areas.” When the N.W.T. was created, various cultural groups were forced together into settlements. In the past, “people were able to take care of each other.”

While game, fish, and berries remain central to many people’s diets, only 14 percent of N.W.T. households get more than three-quarters of their meat and fish directly from the land. Most people in the N.W.T. would like to eat more of it, especially caribou, a traditional staple. But, according to the State of Rural Canada, a 2015 report by non-profit Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, these foods aren’t as plentiful now. The Bathurst caribou, for example, that roam near the arctic hamlets that now have food banks, have declined from roughly 450,000 animals in the mid-1980s to around 20,000 today.

And now that most people rely on food from grocery stores, high costs are a looming issue. Duane Wilson of Arctic Co-operatives, the support centre for grocery co-ops across the territory, worked in food transportation in the co-op for years.

Building a store that sells to a limited number of people, with utilities up to 10 times more expensive while you store a year’s worth of goods in a heated warehouse, is challenging, he says. And on top of it when something breaks you might need to fly an expert in.

“And we’re going to expect that it’s going to have the same prices as the Walmart Supercentre. Does that sound reasonable to you?”

Ice roads are also more expensive to truck on. Seasonal road and ferry closures mean most N.W.T. communities need to fly their supplies in at least part of the time. Others use marine barges, though the lack of developed ports means it’s costlier. And climate change is altering some harbours, making access even harder. It’s expensive to transport supplies to build new stores. Electricity is five to 10 times more in parts of the North, according to a 2015 government-commissioned study on Northern food retail.

“Many of the co-op retail operations actually are done at a loss to serve their community,” says Wilson. “This truly is life and death for people.”

Despite this, at least some food remains affordable. In Yellowknife, gala apples go for $1.99 a pound. At NorthMart in Inuvik, they’re $3.17 a pound. Prices checked in May 2017 on pears, eggs, milk, and yogurt in both locations were similarly comparable. As the State of Rural Canada report points out however, the standard cost of basic food items is often higher.

Laura Rose manages the Hay River soup kitchen (population 2,728). Despite increasing reliance on the food bank in her community, she points to positive happenings in the N.W.T. “There’s more gardening and growing one’s own food in some of the different communities that’s starting to take off,” she says. “The green thumb bug is catching on with people.”

There’s the Inuvik community greenhouse, dubbed the most northerly greenhouse in North America, housing community plots and a commercial portion.

In Hay River, the non-profit Northern Farm Training Institute has a mission to empower people to restore Northern food systems. Benoit praises Yellowknife organization Food Rescue that collects grocery store food before it’s thrown out and redistributes it to community organizations.

“The land, plants, animals, and humans hold a kin interrelationship that has consummated livelihoods for generations,” reads the State of Rural Canada report on the N.W.T. “Resilience is central to this landscape.” May it be so.

 

This article was first published in the July/Aug 2017 issue of This Magazine. https://this.org/2017/07/25/whats-behind-the-high-cost-of-food-in-canadas-north/

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Colonialism and food

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I am interested in bringing the effects of colonialism (and work on de-colonization) into my work on food.  I want to consider how colonization has affected diet, how this links to culture and health, how it relates to power, and ultimately how it relates to interaction with/use of the land in terms of both agricultural practices, gathering and hunting practices and plant life in non-agricultural spaces.

Colonialism has drastically shifted food practices on the landscape many of us now know as ‘Canada’, and in our local area here in Kamloops.  I’d like to know as much as possible about the topic both in general and specific terms.

There is lots of knowledge about this topic out there, and it’s something I know some about already.

I have asked readers the question “How does (and did) colonialism affect food? I want to hear your thoughts.”

And here are some responses….

  • “Colonialism changed the diets of the societies that were colonized to their detriment. When you drastically alter the food of a society you are then subjecting your “acceptable” practices onto them, and the ill health effects that come with it!”
  • “Over-processed foods are creating epidemics in indigenous communities: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc. all have roots in Western diets that are high in grain and sugar consumption.  Here in the Columbia River Gorge (the river between Washington and Oregon), the colonists built a series of dams that swelled the river to create hydro power. It also flooded natural falls (Celilo) where, for hundreds of generations, indigenous people would go to catch salmon during the season for such a thing. Now the salmon population has been decimated, which has affected the culture, the food system, and the ecosystem.  [It’s a] big effing deal.”
  • “Neocolonialism in the form of “international development” has forced North American farming techniques (nitrogen-based fertilizers, nuclear family farms, factory farms) onto “developing” nations, disrupting cultural practices, local agricultural knowledge, and land use patterns. Countless were forced out of subsistence farming, where they shared generations worth of local know-how, into cash crop farming. Instead of growing their own food, people who used to know the land they lived on are forced to buy food that is often priced according to a global economy they never consented to being a part of.”
  • “They slaughtered 60 million wild buffalo, almost to extinction to raise inferior cattle like brainless idiots!”
  • “The process of colonialism included killing off the buffalo not just for hides, not just for profit, but to wipe out the indigenous communities. In 1873, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano said “The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors.”
    A year later In 1874, Delano testified before Congress, “The buffalo are disappearing rapidly, but not faster than I desire. I regard the destruction of such game as Indians subsist upon as facilitating the policy of the Government, of destroying their hunting habits, coercing them on reservations, and compelling them to begin to adopt the habits of civilization.”
  • “Enclosure of commons is a big deal too.”
  • “I am (hopefully) writing my PhD dissertation on this very topic (food sovereignty and colonialism)! Right now i’m thinking about things in terms of land and enclosure… farms were among the first enclosures on Vancouver Island, as land was surveyed, divided, sold, cleared, and farmed. The mechanization of farming allowed capitalist farmers to exploit farmland more intensively, and it was only the wealthiest growers who could afford the latest technology. That meant that smaller farmers got squeezed out… and we are still in that process today: the larger farms tend to rely on the exploitation of precarious migrant labour (primarily people of colour), they use high-tech machinery to maximize efficiency, and they use chemical fertilizers/pesticides (or tons of amendments in the case of organic agribusiness)… and they are all based on the enclosure and privatization of indigenous lands… but this history throws a wrench into a lot of the mainstream settler narratives of food sovereignty, which are often about a yearning for a return to the good ol’ days of the (white supremacist, patriarchal) family farm against the big bad corporation… so where does that leave us settler foodies who want to grow food here? What are our responsibilities/obligations? Can there be decolonizing settler farming practices?”
  • “Have you read “Empires of Food” by Fraser and Rimas? It looks at the historical development of food systems over the last 2,000 years or so; one of the stories I learned is of landless Tamils being brought to Sri Lanka in the 1800s to farm tea on plantations for the British – there was a major drought, as well as a recession in Britain that lowered the price of luxury imports, and tens of thousands of workers died because, despite being surrounded by tea, there was no food to eat.”
  • “We (Europeans) brought diabetes amongst other things. We took tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and we have lost countless foods because we have lost languages and the knowledge that they contain.”
  • “Colonialism influences our understanding of food and how it is distributed. Food as something you can (or cannot) afford and thus can or cannot eat. It’s produced and distributed through the free market and by huge corporations who operate based on profits and using people, farmers, the environment.”

Written by larkinschmiedl

March 27, 2012 at 5:49 pm

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Food brainstorms

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My investigation begins.  It began years ago, really, when I first became acutely interested in food politics.

I am in process of surveying local food issues, and will be attending the Kamloops Food Policy Council meeting this Wednesday.

I spoke with Anne Grube yesterday, who is a local organic farmer (Golden Ears farm) and mother of city councillor Donovan Cavers.  (Cavers also runs a local catering business that strives to provide local organic ingredients, Conscientious Catering.)

I’ve been brainstorming ideas for stories, thinking about what can be put in concrete terms that really delves to the heart of issues with food and the food movement, and speaks to what a wide audience is concerned about.  The best idea I have so far is to look at the pricing of organic foods vs. conventional foods, to look at the reasons and provide information that people can base their purchasing decisions on, or at least give some food for thought and further research.

I have an obvious bias in support of organics and local and sustainable foods, so I will just put that front and centre right here.  However I do not think this prevents me from delving in and reporting on the issue.  I hope that by being transparent about my beliefs and background I will be able to put forth some of the concrete things I have learned about the food system in my time, alongside new research, and presented in balance with other perspectives.  My aim is for us all to learn, and find our way collectively toward a food system we can believe in, and that is viable to create.

Any ideas, readers?  Anything you’ve always wondered about food or the food system?  Any things you think need to be heard about more in the media?  Write and let me know.  I want to know what folks are wondering and concerned about.

The ideas I’m playing with right now include:

  • Food recommendations and the official national food pyramid–how it came to be, and what factors influenced its development?  What do dietary experts have to say about it?
  • Food irradiation treatment–what exactly is it, and how does it work?
  • The Kamloops public garden is expanding to the North Shore in the spring, and this is of interest locally.
  • Kamloops grocery store waste–what is given away and where to, and what goes into the dumpsters?  (I used to procure a lot of my food from dumpster diving, but not in Kamloops, so I have first-hand experience of the vast amounts of food that are thrown away, and am curious about what is happening here in Kamloops.)  What regulations govern food donation, and what laws apply to dumpster divers?  How does this relate to poverty in town?
  • How much food do we actually have in Kamloops that is locally produced?
  • I had the idea to create an interactive online food miles calculator that would tell you where your food came from if you typed in the type of food, its brand and where you got it.  This does not exist on the internet that I know of, and it would be a complicated, extensive and ever-changing and expanding project.  I think it’s pretty far outside the scope of what I could accomplish in this course.  I am very excited about the idea of a project like this though.  This sort of database could link to a vast amount of information about environmental impact, farm conditions, predicted nutritional value, profiles of stores and what they provide, and more.  Very exciting.  The sorts of food miles calculators that exist online now are approximate and do not provide detailed information.  Here is one good one if you just want to calculate how far a particular item has travelled to get to you.  All you need to know is what country your food item came from.

I’ll continue brainstorming, blogging and reporting as the days and weeks go on, so stay tuned.

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