On a recent summer morning, elders are lining up for Tungasuvvingat Inuit’s (TI) food bank for the usual produce selection of colourful chard, heirloom tomatoes and kale, among other fresh fruits, vegetables and non-perishables. But there is also a selection of home: traditional country foods like candied char belly, seal meat, and tuktu (frozen caribou cubes). Once elders finish collecting their groceries, they gather and catch up in Inuktitut.

It’s just another food distribution day for TI in the Vanier neighbourhood of Ottawa, and volunteers and staff are hard at work providing the community with healthy and healing foods. It’s an essential community program, even more pronounced after three years of a global pandemic and rising prices at the grocery stores.

Need and opportunity

The squeeze of rising food costs has increased the need for TI’s communal food bank, as well as made daily operations harder to manage. Rhonda Huneault, manager of food security at TI, says that lines at the food bank are growing longer and its grocery bills have doubled.

“Sometimes between $1,500 and $2,000 is now $3,000. We don’t buy anything more or less than we did,” she says. “I can’t believe the change.”

Rhonda Huneault, manager of food security at Tungasuvvingat Inuit, poses in front of the mixed menu of western and country food proteins. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer

Huneault says new community members who until now have never needed the food bank’s services, are arriving. A good number are working-class community members. Huneault receives weekly requests for food gift cards, and community members who cannot travel to Vanier are asking for aid to feed their families.

“The poverty line is now into what was once the middle class,” Huneault says. “People are reaching out to us and saying they don’t have food week to week.”

“The need grows daily,” she continues.

On a recent summer morning, elders are lining up for Tungasuvvingat Inuit’s food bank for the usual produce selection, but also a taste of home: traditional country foods like candied char belly, seal meat, and tuktu.

Huneault and TI do their best to continue support for community members, particularly those who cannot travel to the food bank. During the Omicron variant shutdown last winter, TI secured funding to provide families weekly food gift cards to ensure the community is food-secure.

With this growing need comes greater ambition. Huneault's dream is to build a new community food centre called Qaggiq (an Inuktitut word for a huge igloo that communities in the North will build to gather and feast).

It’s part of a mission to move from food security to food sovereignty — a shift that allows community members to select all the foods they want, rather than settling for what is available.

For Huneault, food sovereignty is all about feedback on what foods the community wants to eat, so TI can stock up on those items. The centre would have a main floor stocked with a walk-in fridge, freezer and pantry shelves; another floor would be supplied with a new kitchen for the community to gather, cook, and feast.

Decolonizing the palate a communal experience

It’s difficult for Inuit in Ottawa to access country foods, essential for their well-being. TI has adopted the slogan “decolonizing the palate,” which staff will use moving forward. The food bank is trying to shift away from just canned and boxed food to health-promoting cultural foods.

A selection of country foods (clockwise from left): natsiq (seal intestine), tuktu (caribou cubes), natsiq (seal liver), piksik (dried arctic char), candy char bellies, smoked tuktu ribs (caribou ribs). Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer

Huneault works with several food sources, including a local organic farm and several hunters and fisheries, to serve all-important country foods to the community.

Joan Cunha, a TI staff member who was raised in an outpost camp on Baffin Island eating and preparing country foods, told Canada’s National Observer having a diversity of cultural foods available in a communal environment is essential to the mental and physical health of community members.

“We grew up with country food. It’s our soul food,” she says. “It’s sharing, it’s seeing, it’s gathering. The more you share, the more it tastes better.”

Cunha says community members will share their allotted country foods with each other, so everybody can experience the culinary diversity of the North, with the added flavour of sharing a taste of home.

Kevin Ettagik, a community member who bakes bannock for every food bank, says the secret to a good bannock is a high-quality flour, preferably Five Roses. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer

Community member Kevin Ettagik honours that culture when he wakes up on food bank day to bake bannock for the others.

“It’s good to have decent bannock because sometimes the bannock bus has some crappy bannock,” Ettagik says.

Ettagik acknowledges the importance of providing his perfected bannock to the community because it’s a part of Inuit culture and his own upbringing.

“It’s part of survival. That’s what I survived on when I was a young little pup, I survived on bannock and tea. That’s why I want to give bannock in my old age. I want to make sure everyone has some,” he says.

Note to readers: TI food bank, although open to food donations, prefers monetary support in order to provide community members with health-promoting foods like fresh produce and country foods.