Monday, February 11, 2013

the price of tea: Nunavut food politics

Some people have been asking me about the food up here in Nunavut. With horror stories from websites like Nunavut Food Prices, I was curious myself what my diet was going to be like coming up. 

While availability, selection and price varies from region to region and time of year, here's a snapshot of my grocery shopping experience with these exhibits.

Bag of chips: $6.75
2 oranges:  $4.19
Avocado: $3.19
Broccoli crown: $6.92
Beets: $1.60
Garlic: $2.25
Mushrooms: $2.89
Onions: $2.55
Pepper: $3.30
A dozen eggs: $4.35
Cream: $4.89
Cheese: $10.99
Butter: $6.59
Can of frozen juice: $2.89 (x2)
Six chicken breasts: $40.99
Bacon: $4.90
Vegetable oil: $10.85
VH sauce: $5.45
Pasta sauce: $5.69
Chef Boyardee: $4.85
Can of tuna: $4.59
Loaf of bread: $5.85
Kale chips: $7.99


When I first moved to Cambridge Bay, I was advised not to complain publicly about the price of food, because nobody wants to listen to that new guy in town griping about how it was so much better at home. And to be honest, I’m pleasantly surprised with the selection of food that is available, given the fact that Rob can have his favourite brand of Japanese ramen, I can have my avocado, there are frozen spring rolls and kale chips, and these oranges are being flown in from…where, Florida? And where are these mangoes coming from?

As you can see, the price of food here is roughly similar to the grocery shopping at the gas station down south, with some notable exceptions (such as meat).  That’s not so bad, right? There’s a couple things to keep in mind though. One, many of these prices are actually the subsidized price – that is, the government puts in money to lower the price, so normally, the price of these items would be even higher.  Secondly, while I might grumble about the price of cheese at sixteen dollars and meat at sixty, the reality is that with my job I can afford to pay that price, even if I’m not used to.  My neighbours down the road, however, earning only a couple hundred dollars a month on social assistance still have to pay the same price for food.  It boggles my mind to try to figure out how some folks manage to feed their family of five within their budget.

rob's culinary experiments in the Arctic: muskox tacos
There is also the issue of trying to eat healthy. I’ve always been an advocate for eating fresh, local, and organic whenever possible. (Which makes everyone wonder why I keep moving to the desert, like Subsaharan Africa and the Arctic). You can imagine it would be a bit more difficult doing that here, especially in the dead of winter where everything’s frozen.

Arctic char omelettes

Also, I have no idea how vegans would get by around here – not that I’ve met any. It’s been challenging enough for me, as an Asian who is accustomed to eating Asian food every day.

Traditionally, the Inuit had a pretty healthy diet.  There’s nothing more fresh, organic, and free of chemical preservatives than Arctic char that you’ve caught yourself.  Narwhal meat contains the same amount of vitamin C as an orange.  “Country” food is still considered to be pound-for-pound the most nutritious thing you can get here.  Wouldn’t it be better for Inuit families to just hunt muskox like the old ways, instead of paying high prices for less fresh food at the grocery store? 

Unfortunately, things are not the same anymore.  Living off the land was a lot more possible for Inuit people when they were able to lead a nomadic lifestyle, following the migration patterns of the caribou and other wildlife. Now that, after European contact, they have been settled into permanent communities, it’s a lot harder to hunt the same way.  Inuit hunters often have to travel much further, hundred of kilometres, to track down their food source, and then travel that distance back to get to their homes in the town.  Adaptations have been made, of course, to try to deal with this – Inuit hunters hunt with guns now, and there’s a government subsidy program that gives snowmobiles to hunters.   But the truth still remains – living on country food alone is still costly, time-consuming, and just not a reality for most people.

Arctic Char
This leaves a lot of people in Nunavut caught between a rock and a hard place.   The price of food has become a hot topic political issue in Nunavut, as can be seen in recent protests at Iqaluit grocery stores and the recent forum on food security in Nunavut.  And it is an important issue that Canadians need to be informed about.  We know from the television news about the starving children in Africa or North Korea, but many of us forget that right in our very (conceptual) backyards, there are Canadian children suffering from malnutrition.

muskox borscht
  EDIT: The CBC released this related article on food security in Canada today.