Food security is a global challenge that either directly or indirectly affects every human on the planet. Being a Canadian company focused on alleviating food insecurity, we wanted to explore the concept in more detail, and why it adversely impacts Indigenous Peoples living in Canada.
The Impact of Food Insecurity
According to the Human Rights Watch, 50.8% of First Nations Peoples living on reserves and 28.2% of Indigenous Peoples off reserve are food insecure. This is in comparison to only 11.1% of the total population excluding indigenous families in Canada.
What causes food insecurity amongst northern Indigenous communities?
The higher rates of food insecurity experienced by Indigenous families can be partly attributed to purchasing power on reserves. Often funds are too scarce relative to the cost of healthy food.
For instance, in a study done by Food Secure Canada, in order to purchase the Revised Northern Food Basket (RNFB) for a family of four for the duration of a month, it would take 19% of the median income in Timmins, Ontario. In comparison, it would take 36% or 56% of the median income in Moosonee and Fort Albany, respectively.
Such a significant disparity is the result of two factors.
Firstly, the costs required to transport fresh produce to reserves are higher than they are to urban metropolitan centres. This is largely due to proximity, as many indigenous communities are not accessible by road all year round, and they must be reached by plane or boat.
Secondly, on many reserves, one grocery store has a monopoly on the market. This enables these stores to charge higher than average prices without the pressure of competition on many (if not all) of the staples of daily life. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Northwest Grocery Store, the largest grocer in Northern Canada, has no competition in at least 70% of northern communities.
Why food insecurity is even more complex than this.
However, simply explaining a lack of food security as the result of remote locations and grocery store monopolies fails to capture the deeply rooted history responsible for these inequities.
Another major contributory factor to many northern Indigenous communities relying on southern systems of food production is due to the impacts of colonization, which has inhibited many communities from practicing traditional, sustainable methods of farming and food consumption.
Environmentally, the harsh weather conditions characteristic of northern communities make it difficult to cultivate anything other than naturalized vegetation for an extended growing season. However, endemic game and plants have often been the subject of commercial exploitation which render them scarce today. As a result of this, various levels of government have periodically instituted bans and moratoriums on certain species (cod, salmon, and seals to name a few) which restrict access to traditional Indigenous food sources.
Perhaps an even more significant issue than reliance on southern food systems is the loss of traditional knowledge (as best summarised by Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntasel), exacerbated by the impact of the residential school system which operated in Canada until 1996. Due to the magnitude of generations traumatized by the systems imposed by colonialism, traditional knowledge (including traditional farming and food consumption practices) is not as widespread as it once was, a fact which is only expedited as community Elders continue to pass.
Food Sovereignty as a potential solution to food insecurity.
Food Sovereignty is the concept of a community claiming control of it’s food system - what they eat, how it’s produced, and how it’s distributed.
The seven pillars of food sovereignty are that food sovereignty:
- Focuses on food for the people
- Builds knowledge and skills
- Works with nature
- Values food providers
- Localizes food systems
- Puts control locally
- Considers food as sacred.
By being able to produce food using traditional pathways, communities can decrease their dependence on southern producers and improve the quality of their food. Such a solution is expected to be more effective in the long term than proposals to decrease the costs associated with transport, provide subsidies to Indigenous consumers or increase salaries.
Food sovereignty as a solution also addresses the cultural component of food insecurity entrenched by Canada’s colonial history and is seen as a practical, empowering solution to the problem of the inequitable food insecurity felt by some Canada’s most vulnerable communities.