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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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Sugar free: inside food banks controversial no junk food policies

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Controversy erupted in August after Ottawa’s Parkdale Food Centre announced it would stop accepting junk food, such as Kraft Dinner and hot dogs, effective immediately. Some wholeheartedly agreed with the centre’s stand; others virulently opposed the new restriction. Those in favour felt, like Karen Secord, Parkdale’s co-ordinator, that food bank users’ health is worth as much as anyone’s, and Parkdale should strive to provide healthy food. Those opposed to the move, however, asked why the food bank felt it had the authority to restrict people’s diet choices. Some former food bank users shared the opinion hotdogs were better than nothing, while others pointed out they didn’t have refrigeration to store so-called healthier food. Yet, for or against, and whether the commentary was rooted in personal experience, politics or stereotypes, the public conversation revealed something essential: our own attitudes toward those using food banks.

Parkdale isn’t the first or only food bank to restrict food donations. Founded more than 30 years ago, Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre, has made it the centre’s policy to only accept healthy food—a policy created after the community members it serves told the organization they wanted it that way. “We started as a food bank in the traditional sense, and over time our community members told us the food that we were providing was not enough,” says Kathe Rogers, The Stop’s communications manager. “It was not healthy enough, it was not meeting their dietary needs. And so over time, we became a healthy food bank. Because that is what people really need when they’re struggling. When they’re out there on low incomes, or they’re living in poverty, these are the items that are beyond their means.”

“I often joke that the folks at the food bank in The Stop have, without question,  more organic food than my kids do,” adds executive director Rachel Gray. “And that’s one of the things we think is really important.” Her philosophy is people can’t get or be healthy without healthy food. Heavily processed food loaded with sugar, salt or fat is unhealthy no matter how you slice it, she adds. Gray says people can debate whether it’s nice to have a box of macaroni and cheese, but if that’s all a person has to eat it becomes problematic: there’s no choice; it may be culturally inappropriate or irrelevant; and it’s not a balanced diet. “It’s not the way to good health,” she adds. “And if we’re not supporting people to get healthy, what are we achieving?”

Ideas such as “any type of food helps”—which goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that low-income people should be grateful for whatever they get—can belie fundamental assumptions about people’s worth. Stigma that blames the economically disadvantaged for their situation is often included in conversations about food banks, as are the stereotypes “poor people don’t like to cook” and only like junk food. A report from Washington, DC-based organization Cooking Matters, found that while assumptions about the eating habits of low-income Americans were rampant, the reality is poor families most often cook dinner at home, mostly from scratch, and are highly interested in making healthy meals. The stumbling block for many families is the price. An article by Jesse Bauman entitled “Poor People Can’t Cook and Other Myths,” published on Food Secure Canada’s website, reflects similar data for Canadians. In a small survey that asked low-income people about their food skills, Bauman found those who have to carefully budget a meal plan simply can’t afford to eat out. Instead, he writes, people “have developed many of the skills necessary to make the best of their situation.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the food bank discussion will go away anytime soon. Every month, more than 830,000 Canadians access a food bank, according to HungerCount 2013, a report created by Food Banks Canada. Of these 37 percent are children. And, despite being once envisioned as a short-term solution to economic crisis in the ’80s, food bank usage is on the rise. “Within the food bank network,” HungerCount 2013 reports, “crisis has become the norm. Canadians continue to give generously, and food banks continue to stock, give, and re-stock.” While Gray would like to see food banks become obsolete—The Stop advocates for increases to social assistance and minimum wage that would put solid safety nets in place—she agrees they’re double-edged swords. “Food banks are still around because people are still hungry,” says Gray. “Our food bank is busy and thriving because food banks don’t work as a means of addressing poverty and hunger.”

First published in This Magazine, Nov/Dec 2014

Thinkin’ about food

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“Food security is not in the supermarket. It’s not in the government. It’s not at the emergency services division. True food security is the historical normalcy of packing it in during the abundant times, building that in-house larder, and resting easy knowing that our little ones are not dependent on next week’s farmers’ market or the electronic cashiers at the supermarket.”
― Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

“The average person is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be somebody else’s responsibility until I’m ready to eat it.”
― Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

Written by larkinschmiedl

March 19, 2013 at 11:33 am

Kamloops Farmer’s Market video series: Golden Ears Farm

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Tristan Grube-Cavers runs Golden Ears Farm co-operatively in Chase, B.C.  In this video he shares his ethics, the reasons he went into farming, some of what he hopes to achieve on the farm, as well as the things Golden Ears grows.

Written by larkinschmiedl

July 23, 2012 at 12:13 am

Kamloops Farmer’s Market video series: Silver Springs Organic Farm

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Mendel Rubinson farms near Savona, B.C. with his partner Paula Rubinson.  Their farm is called Silver Springs Organic.  In this video Mendel shares a bit of his farming story, and his opinions about local, organic, and what he chooses when the two collide.

Local eating the focus of eatkamloops.org

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Eatkamloops.org is a website created by Kamloops citizen Caroline Cooper, who has a passion for local food, so much so she has put her own time into creating extensive lists of farms, ranches, seed savers and breeders in the Kamloops area who are keeping the local food economy alive.

Cooper blogs on sustainable living issues as well, ranging from creating your own solar power to choosing sustainable fish, and urban hens to smart meters.

You can find her website at eatkamloops.org.

In a joint effort to raise awareness about local eating in Kamloops, she and I have joined forces and my sustainable food in Kamloops map now includes the farms and ranches from her website, showing in visual form where they can be found.

Check it out.

Councillor Donovan Cavers eats local

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I interviewed city councillor Donovan Cavers about his food choices and the ethics and thinking behind them.

As someone who eats almost exclusively local food, here is what he had to say about where he gets his food and why he eats the way he does.

Written by larkinschmiedl

March 28, 2012 at 5:45 pm

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