Helping in the North

Food insecurity in the North is disproportionately higher than other parts of the country, with Nunavut having the highest rate. According to recent research, 57% of households in Nunavut are unable to afford food for their families.

Lisa Sommers, Food Procurement Manager at Food Banks Canada always had an interest in helping those living with food insecurity in remote areas. Last year, she was able to do that and saw firsthand the challenges faced by northern communities. “Once you work in this for months, you have a deeper understanding of how difficult it is to get healthy food up there. The costs of shipping are just astronomical. One pallet of food could cost thousands of dollars to fly in by air. Usually, we send food through our National Food Sharing program to all provincial food banks across Canada. Unfortunately, we did not have the resources to send it to the four affiliate food banks located in the Territories”.

The lack of nutrition in people’s diets is also concerning, and hearing people’s stories about not having enough fresh protein and produce was heartbreaking.

 “One of the teachers [in NWT] that I met used to live in a remote Indigenous community, and she said that there are just two rows to shop from at the grocery store. There is also no frozen meat available for purchase, or any fresh food or produce. It is mostly processed food, and everything is so expensive. As a measuring example, if you wanted to buy a can of Coke, it costs 6$! There is such a lack of variety available”, said Lisa.

The geographical obstacles that exist in the North cannot be underestimated. 

“Many communities are fly-in only. In Northwest Territories, there are some roads, but also many rivers and lakes. When the river is open, you can take the ferry but once freeze-up happens, it can take another couple of months to ensure that the ice roads are strong enough to drive over. Weather conditions can be horrendous. It’s very challenging to schedule freight routes and incredibly expensive – very foreign to those of us in the south who are used to a very efficient road transportation system and a very large population base to spread the costs and efficiencies.”

Food Banks Canada has always had a mandate to be there for Canadians living with food insecurity in remote areas but, like all organizations, struggles to find affordable transportation. The funds received through the Surplus Food Rescue Program helped find a solution to this longstanding issue. 

“We received funding from the government to purchase food. There was also transportation funding to go above and beyond what we would ever be able to do through our own transportation network. We were able to deliver into all 25 hamlets of Nunavut, which is extremely far north. We have never been able to do that before.” When asked about more details, she was quick to mention the relationship she developed with Arctic Co-ops, which is a service federation owned and run  by 32 community-based Co-operative businesses that are in Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon. “We benefited by using their air freight rates, which are tens of thousands of dollars lower than booking on our own, as well as using their local Co-op store managers to connect me to local people and food agencies in all the hamlets, to distribute the meat. If it wasn’t for that relationship, we would only be shipping to 5 communities”.

The much-needed funds also enabled the expansion of service to other northern food banks.

“Amazingly, we were able to supply food to 90 food banks, food agencies, Indigenous and Inuit/Innu groups across Yukon, NWT, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut.”

The pandemic lockdowns only heightened the desperate need for food in the North, but it also added challenges.

“In certain communities, there were healthcare guideline policies that were challenging. In some remote areas, officials had boundaries set up and they did not want people to cross through as they were very concerned about the virus infecting their communities (given the lack of medical facilities and the overcrowded housing conditions). They were understandably afraid of getting sick and passing it on to their loved ones and not being able to isolate properly”.

Despite all the challenges, Lisa was grateful for her experience. She learned a great deal about the cultures, languages, food insecurity issues, geography and of course, the logistical challenges of the Territories. She hopes she can use those learnings to continue to be there for Canadians living with food insecurity, especially in the northern and remote areas.

“It has been an incredible experience. The relationships and partnerships developed in distributing this program were instrumental, especially the one with Arctic Co-op. This is something that I want to use moving forward. When you have someone, who is already doing business there and respected in the communities, it is much easier to effectively distribute, store product and communicate with local people than trying to do it all on your own- especially when you have no background or experience in those areas. This made all the difference. Things that we would never think of as obstacles here, can be obstacles in the North”.

Lisa was also inspired by the caring communities. “People take great care of each other. I’d say more so than here. Many communities are very isolated and have harsh environments. There is little to no infrastructure  which is something we take for granted, in the south. Everyone truly cares about their fellow community members….it was lovely to witness that. People living in northern and remote areas are more impacted by outside factors, whether it be food insecurity, climate change or COVID. Food banks and the great work that they continue to do was also something she could not help but mention. “The ability for people to make a difference within these communities, many on a volunteer basis, with many other challenges around them was truly inspiring”.