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Citizen-Led Solutions Hold Key to Helping the Hungry in Nunavut

More than one-third of households in Canada’s eastern Arctic don’t have access to enough nutritious food. Social media campaigns against the territory’s sky-high food prices have prompted a variety of responses to help.

Written by Colleen Kimmett Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A recent photo from the aisle of a grocery store in Iqaluit gives a taste of high food prices in Canada's North.Photo Courtesy Mary-Lee Aliyak

On the phone from Sakku School in Coral Harbour, a fly-in community in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, teacher Andrea Robinson reads out a recent receipt from the breakfast program she helps coordinate.

“A box of bananas is $90 (US$67), that’s three 12-pound bags,” she said. “Oranges, holy moly, $150 for a case of oranges.” (All figures are in Canadian dollars.)

The program provides hot breakfast for the school’s 285-plus students, kindergarten to Grade 12. Usually it’s muffins or oatmeal; at least twice a week, students receive eggs and a piece of fresh fruit – a pricey commodity that, in this hamlet, is out of reach for many families.

According to Robinson, the program buys most of its supplies from the sealift barge, one of the more affordable ways to send non-perishable groceries to Nunavut’s communities, which, far from Canada’s network of roads, are only accessible by air or sea. But for perishable items like fresh fruit, they need to go to the local store, which is supplied by air freight – which is incredibly expensive. Last November, says Robinson, the program was waiting on a check from a charitable organization that had been delayed. In the meantime, they couldn’t purchase any fresh fruit for the kids – which meant many of them likely weren’t getting it at all.

Through another teacher, Robinson heard about Feeding Nunavut, an Ontario-based nonprofit that raises money for food programs in the North. She called and explained the situation to Feeding Nunavut’s founder and director, Taye Newman. Within a week, Newman had a crowdfunding campaign up and running, with ads circulating on social media. Almost instantly money began flowing in, the majority from donors in southern Canada, but some as far away as Scotland. By Christmas Day, the campaign had reached its $5,000 (US$3,700) goal. “It was huge,” says Robinson.

The shockingly steep sticker prices of food in Canada’s remote Arctic communities first created an online furor about five years ago, thanks to photographs shared on social media. In response, a growing network of Canadian donors continue to connect online to send food and financial aid north. Those involved say that charity is an insufficient response to the depth of the food insecurity problem – that is, lack of affordable, nutritious food – in the North. But the efforts have helped many families and communities.

Much of the focus has been concentrated in Nunavut, which has the highest rate of food insecurity anywhere in the country. More than one-third of households there lack reliable access to safe and nutritionally appropriate food, according to a 2015 report from Statistics Canada. (Nationally, on average, one in 10 households across the country qualify as food insecure.)

In 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food flagged food insecurity among indigenous and Inuit communities as a major health crisis, bringing media attention to the problem and international pressure on the federal government, which operates a food subsidy program for northern communities that has been the subject of much criticism.

But it was arguably northerners themselves who made the problem tangible for the broader public. Around the same time of the U.N. report, Leesee Papatsie, an Inuit woman living in Iqaluit, started a Facebook group called Feeding My Family. Within weeks, according to a CBC report, it had attracted 12,000 members from across Nunavut and the North.

The group became an organizing vehicle for a series of protests and boycotts against the North West Company, a retailer which holds a monopoly in many small northern communities. But it also became a place for northerners to communicate the sticker shock they face when they go to the grocery store. A recent scan of the page showed an $8 (US$5.90) loaf of bread in Iqaluit, a $16 pack of beef broth in Pangnirtung and an $18 bottle of ketchup in Kimmirut.

When Jennifer Gwilliam, a Vancouver Island woman, encountered Papatsie’s group on Facebook, she felt compelled to do something. Gwilliam formed her own Facebook group called Helping Our Northern Neighbours to match people in the North seeking food donations with people in the south who wanted to give.

One was Ange Saufert, a 37-year-old court reporter from southern British Columbia who decided to become a sponsor in January 2015. She was matched with Shelly Anguntingunirk, who lives with her husband and their two young sons in Kugaaruk, Nunavut.

In a conversation over Facebook messenger, Anguntingunirk told Arctic Deeply that she occasionally substitutes at the school, but neither she nor her husband can find full-time work in Kugaaruk (population 933) and have less than $1,500 (US$1,100) a month in social assistance to live on. She signed up for a sponsor because she often finds herself struggling to choose between food and other household essentials. Saufert sends four boxes a year, typically with nutrient-dense items such as dried and canned salmon, beef jerky, dried fruit and nuts, trail mix – along with staples like oatmeal and pasta.

“It means a lot,” Anguntingunirk wrote of Saufert’s sponsorship. “I wish I could meet her in person and give her the biggest hug!”

Both said they’ve have kept up their own line of communication on Facebook, outside of the group. “I just like how she rolls,” Saufert said, about Anguntingunirk. “She’s positive, she’s funny, she shares funny memes on Facebook sometimes.” Whenever Anguntingunirk receives a box, she posts a picture on Saufert’s wall.

On the other hand, as the group has grown, there have been concerns raised about the system being abused. Katherine Simpson, a former sponsor from Alberta, had two experiences that turned her off. For one, she felt like she was being ripped off by someone who later resold the food on community Facebook groups. For another, the family’s need for food seemed genuine, but she eventually felt “drained” by the frequency of their requests. “I felt like an ordering system,” Simpson said. “After the end of a year, I didn’t feel like anything was improving.”

Simpson is now part one of several micro-projects that have formed out of Helping Our Northern Neighbours to focus on targeting donations to groups or organizations. She said she recently sent several boxes of wool to a knitting group in Nunavik.

Newman, the founder of Feeding Nunavut, first became aware of the crisis in the North after reading an article about Helping Our Northern Neighbours on the Huffington Post. She joined the group, and it was like a gateway into a reality she hadn’t known existed in Canada. “I had no experience in the North,” she said. “It was shocking to me.”

Newman said she also felt strongly as though shipping food was not an efficient way to help. “I wanted to donate to a food bank,” said Newman, but when she tried to look for one she couldn’t find any. “Eventually I realized it’s not that they don’t exist, it’s that they don’t have an online presence through Google.”

As a marketing manager who builds websites for a living, Newman figured she could build a site to direct others who might be looking to help. She started searching, recording and mapping the patchwork of food banks, soup kitchens, breakfast programs in the territory, and fundraising through social media. At first, she would solicit donations (Newman said she has hundreds of one-time donations, which average $50, plus around 10 recurring donations every month), and then dispense grants.

Then, last year, the coordinator of a food hamper program in Igloolik, Dana Barker-Sheaves, approached Newman for help. “I thought, instead of just giving them $500 ‘cause that’s what we have in our bank account, maybe take that $500 and do some marketing,” Newman said. She ended up spending $600 on Google AdWords and Facebook ads for the campaign, which brought in $10,000.

“In my opinion, I don’t want to waste any money shipping food,” said Newman. “Feeding Nunavut feels really strongly about providing resources in the form of money, so that these programs can purchase what is needed most.”

Ultimately, Newman, Papatsie and others argue that a charitable approach is unsustainable.

“People are trying to help,” Papatsie said. “That part is really, really good. In another sense it’s kind of a Band-Aid solution. It’s not the answer to solving the actual problem in the North.”

This has been the mantra in food security circles for nearly a decade: food is a human right, and far too important of a public health concern to be left to goodwill and volunteers. The situation in the North is even more complicated; with a history of colonialism, there are major historical and systematic iniquities to right.

Increasingly, Inuit food activists are calling for a solution that will help Inuit access country food, through better management and resource development, and funding specifically to cover the high costs of getting out on the land to hunt. Already, Papatsie points out, there is a network of organizations trying to help with hunger in their communities, and a strong culture of sharing and trading items, like caribou meat or Arctic char, online.

“Nunavut is rich,” said Papatsie. “I believe in building from within.”

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