The executive director of a Nunavut food charity says there's a need to address the root causes of food insecurity after 500 people in the territorial capital went without a daily meal for a week.
The Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre provides a hot lunch on weekdays in Iqaluit, home to nearly 8,000 people. It was forced to temporarily close after the building ran out of fuel in late February, resulting in burst frozen pipes and other damage.
Executive director Rachel Blais said centre staff distributed food hampers twice that week, but the closure prevented them from serving about 2,500 meals.
"It goes to show the vulnerabilities of the community when such a significant portion of the population is reliant on one single charity," she said.
"We can't continue to rely on food banks and food charities like Qajuqturvik to provide something as basic as food for such a significant portion of the population."
Nunavut has some of the highest food costs and rates of food insecurity in Canada. Data released by Statistics Canada in 2020 indicates that 57 per cent of households in the territory experienced food insecurity in 2017-18.
A March 2018 food price survey in the territory found Nunavummiut in general paid more than double the cost for the same items in Ottawa.
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"The situation is dire," Blais said. "This goes beyond an individual issue and this is a systemic issue. This is something that we need policy action to address."
Blais said demand at the food centre has increased since the Canada Emergency Response Benefit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic ended and inflation has risen. It was distributing about 150 meals a day in 2021, she said, which has now grown to between 400 and 500.
The consumer price index in Iqaluit increased 2.1 per cent between January 2021 and 2022, and 3.4 per cent between January 2022 and 2023.
"Qajuqturvik has been around for about 15 years and, in the course of its entire existence, we have never seen demand as high as we are seeing right now," Blais said.
Other food supports in Iqaluit include a food bank that distributes food every second Saturday morning, and a breakfast program. Niqinik Nuatsivik Nunavut Food Bank's website states its family services increased from 30 to 145 singles, couples and families in 2022, representing approximately 500 people, nearly half of whom are under 18.
Stephane Daigle, general manager at Arctic Ventures Marketplace, received the volunteer of the year award from the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2022 for starting Food Porch 766 in October 2020. He prepares and hands out free hot meals most Sunday evenings to help address food insecurity gaps in the city.
Blais said there are several policies the territorial and federal governments could implement or improve to address poverty in Nunavut, such as basic guaranteed income.
She noted the Canada Child Benefit is not geared to the regional cost of living, and the Nunavut Child Benefit is $330 per year for families with a net income of $29,921 or less, compared to up to $1,509 per year per child under Ontario's Child Benefit. She added that income assistance in Nunavut is among the lowest in Canada.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami released its Inuit Nunangat Food Security Strategy in July 2021, which proposes exploring food price regulations, northern air infrastructure funding, poverty reduction measures, a school food program and reforming Nutrition North Canada.
The federal government started Nutrition North Canada in 2011 to improve food access in isolated northern communities, providing a subsidy to retailers for certain foods and goods to pass on to consumers. The program has been criticized by some northerners for failing to adequately address food insecurity, discouraging food sovereignty, and for lacking transparency and accountability.
The federal government has since promised to improve the program and has updated the list of subsidized food, increased subsidy rates and started a Harvesters Support Grant. In August, it announced it was spending $143.4 million over two years to expand the program, including $60.9 million to start a new Community Food Programs Fund to support community food-sharing activities.
Dan Vandal, minister of Northern Affairs, announced Tuesday that Ottawa was signing grant agreements with 24 Indigenous governments and organizations to distribute more than $120 million through the Harvesters Support Grant and the Community Food Programs Fund.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.
— By Emily Blake in Yellowknife.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.