Feeding Tomorrow: Creating Northern Food Security
There are so many issues in the world that scream for attention from our radios, newspapers, and televisions. They compete for recognition in an environment saturated with problems that need solving. Every single one, in its own way, deserves its moment in the spotlight. With that said, for many of us living in North America, very few of the world's big problems affect us directly. It is difficult to empathize because we cannot truly understand what it is like to be in that situation.
Unlike other global issues, food insecurity stands apart. It is often relatable. As mentioned by Josette Sheeran in her Ted Talk, "most of us do not have to go very far back in [our own] family history... to remember an experience of hunger". A problem that strikes so close to home for so many should create an unstoppable movement. So why is it that it's still largely swept under the rug? We don't necessarily think about vast numbers of hungry people in our own countries and communities. This can be majorly attributed to vast misconceptions about food insecurity. Food security is officially defined as: "when people have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food that meets their dietary needs".
What does this mean? We think of a lack of food as a symptom of food production, such as in climates that cannot grow food, but this is not always the case. Food insecurity is more frequently a result of insufficient access to food or the means to purchase it. By directly targeting these root causes, we are more likely to make progress. There is a proverb that comes to mind specifically when considering the issues surrounding food insecurity, specifically in Northern Canada where food insecurity is more acute:
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." - Chinese Proverb
In a broad sense, it accurately represents the current and future solutions to fighting against the challenges that food insecure households and communities face on a daily basis.
current solutions: Giving a man a fish
The man needs to eat, so he will be grateful to anyone who offers him a fish, no matter the size or condition it is gifted in. If he is given a fish every day for the rest of his life, he will accept this system as a secure way of life. However, if he is not given this fish for a few days, he begins to feel uncomfortable and slightly insecure. If the fish is withheld for longer, say a few weeks, the man may become desperate or even starve.
This is representative of the overall approach to food security in Northern Canada today. Systems and programs are in place to ship food up using various channels, such as rail, air, and boats. When this is working well, no one is concerned. Food shipments arrive on time to the communities that need them. However, severe weather is common, and therefore such shipping methods are often delayed or cut off altogether. Churchill, Manitoba is a case in point. Last spring, the only rail line to the town was damaged in a flood; a link that residents have described as "a lifeline". The community now relies on air transport to bring in their necessary supplies, which has led to a drastic increase in prices and a feeling of hopelessness. This, unfortunately, is one of many similar cases in the North. It takes a feeling of insecurity to shed light on an inefficient food system.
These short-term solutions are not necessarily bad in a temporary situation. They alleviate hunger short-term and prevent residents from starving. But is this approach sustainable or secure? In many cases, it has led to incredibly high food prices, even after government subsidies, and widespread food insecurity. When these systems do collapse, both in the form of late shipments or, more frequently, a simple inability to afford the cost of food brought in, there are some emergency responses that have been set in place by non-government organizations.
These include (though not limited to) food banks and emergency food shipments from concerned neighbours, such as one that left Thunder Bay this past December. The community sent over 18,000 kg of food to six remote First Nation communities, after collecting from local grocery stores, suppliers and their own food drives. Once again, these support systems and safety nets are an important part of the current system and are not inherently a bad thing, but they should not become the norm and replace more long-term, sustainable solutions.
necessary changes: Teaching a man to fish
Continuing with our analogy, if the man is taught to fish, he no longer relies on an outside source for his meals. He may also be able to pass along this knowledge to his friends, family and community. These are the solutions we need to focus on to create real, sustainable food security in Northern Canada. Possibly the first and most important way to do this is to recognize that change is necessary, even in communities that may not have had shipping or price surges just yet.
Beyond this, it is crucial to recognize that, while there are evident similarities in the situation, every town is different. "One size fits all" solutions will not be as effective as regionalized consideration and action because each community has its own traditions, needs, skills, and resources. With this understanding established, a broad, two-pronged approach can be considered.
The first step involves creating a new system of independence and self-reliance. Currently, the government spends vast amounts of money on subsidies in order to make imported food semi-affordable. Even with this aid, many still struggle to make ends meet in their homes. Instead of this, Action Canada suggests that we "increase and better target subsidies for hunters to ensure they have the capital equipment required to hunt", which in turn will allow them to both feed and pass traditional knowledge on to their communities. This is an example of a sustainable and secure food system that allows towns access to healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate meals. Not to mention the fact that there are other benefits to such an approach, such as the preservation of cultural knowledge and improved mental health outcomes from being out on the land.
The second step has more to do with education. More focus is needed on teaching individuals about the importance of making healthy and local food choices - and while the government can play a role, they can't do it alone. For example, programs are needed that promote traditional country food and recipes in Aboriginal communities would help nudge purchases away from the cheap, processed food available in stores. The exact definition of country food varies between regions, but overall it's widely accepted that it's "high in protein and nutrients, low in salt, sugar and almost without refined carbohydrates". Recipes like these is a part of traditional knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation, but now it is endangered. An educational shift as simple as this can vastly improve the health and food security of whole communities while restoring customs that are centuries old.
These are just a few solutions to a major issue. Food security overall is a very complex issue, and it is important to recognize that one idea alone will not address everything. What is needed is a network of solutions and resources that intertwine to create a new, comprehensive approach to the food systems in Northern Canada. It's time to teach the man to fish and change not only his life but that of his family and community for generations to come.