Our Food in Nunatsiavut
Communities in Northern Labrador finding ways to overcome food insecurity
The communities of Nunatsiavut face unique food security challenges, including social, environmental, and economic factors impacting access to traditional, wild foods, as well as high cost, limited availability, and poor quality of store-bought food. The NiKigijavut Nunatsiavutinni: Our Food in Nunatsiavut project focuses on overcoming these challenges to ensure Nunatsiavut residents have access to food that is both healthy and culturally-appropriate.
For Inuit communities, achieving food security is more than ensuring that enough food is available in stores. For generations, Inuit of Nunatsiavut have relied on wild food harvested from the land and sea (caribou, seal, porpoise, fish, birds, berries, and plants) as an essential part of their diet. Wild food is not only a source of nutrition, it also carries with it great cultural meaning. Harvesting, preparing, and preserving wild food is deeply connected to the traditional Inuit way of living.
Yet, over recent years, changing weather, sea ice, and wildlife migration patterns, as well as increasing costs of getting out on the land to hunt, have made wild foods harder to access. Labrador is also now in the third of a five-year ban on hunting caribou due to extremely low herd numbers. Caribou meat has been the main source of protein in Nunatsiavut for generations, however since the ban was enacted in 2012, it is not only the nutritional value that is missing. Many say the traditional practice of hunting caribou and providing food to family and friends is one of the biggest impacts of the ban on Nunatsiavut community members.
The Our Food in Nunatsiavut project aims to address food security challenges from many angles: developing a better understanding of the nature of the food issues faced in the region, supporting communities in creating innovative food programs informed by local residents, and connecting people and organizations to create a shared plan for regional action on food security.
This project is led by Food First NL, with funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, in close partnership with the Nunatsiavut Government, the Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, Postville and Rigolet Inuit Community Governments, Trent University, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and more.
What is a Community-Led Food Assessment?
A community-led food assessment (CFLA) is a process that examines all of the issues affecting access to food in an area. Residents come together to identify areas for improvement and to develop solutions that work for them.
Food First NL is now coordinating CLFAs in three Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador: Rigolet, Nain and Hopedale under the project name NiKigijavut Nunatsiavutinni: Our Food in Nunatsiavut.
“The term ‘community-led’ is an important part of what makes all of these projects unique,” says Food First NL Executive Director Kristie Jameson. “With a community-led food assessment the discussion and decision-making is happening in the community where the program is taking place, by the people involved. People understand their community’s strengths and know where things need to improve, and they’re best equipped to develop solutions that will work locally.”
Store Food Shortages
The occasional empty store shelf is not an uncommon sight in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, unpredictable weather, unpaved and unlit runways, and mechanical issues with the coastal ferry means further challenges getting food to the remote communities in Northern Labrador, where shelves are regularly bare for long stretches of time. With no road linkages to other communities or major wholesalers, all food shipped up Labrador’s north coast is transported by plane or boat. Food First NL’s Community Led Food Assessments in Nunatsiavut outlined some of the major barriers residents face to accessing healthy store food, including frequent empty shelves, high costs of food, decreased nutritional value, and increased spoilage of food due to shipping and storage methods.
In Rigolet, residents like Belinda Shiwak felt frustrated about the lack of affordable, healthy store food in their town.
“Fresh vegetables and fruits are an expensive luxury,” Shiwak says. “We have only one store. The food is expensive, sometimes it is old and out-of-date, and sometimes not even there to purchase.”
The Good Food Box
One solution that came up to address store food shortages in Rigolet: Coordinate a group of people to order in bulk, and share the cost of shipping.
“We found out that many residents were interested in bulk buying and wanted programs which offered cheaper shipping, better quality and reasonably priced food,” says Carlene Palliser, coordinator of the Our Food in Nunatsiavut project for Rigolet.
The first bulk order was placed in November of 2014 — with 55 out of 98 households in town participating. That number went up to 63 in January, amounting to 64 per cent of all households in Rigolet.
The Good Food Box Program alternates between offering boxes of healthy fruits and vegetables and healthy meats in the community. Through the Rigolet Community-Led Food Assessment, residents said there is less healthy meat available in the community since the caribou ban has been in effect, and expressed a need for better access to quality meat. “We offer meat boxes and ensure everyone can participate, no matter what income they are at,” says Palliser. “A typical box contains a whole chicken, pork roast, beef roast, chicken legs, lean ground beef, and stewing beef.”
Residents have already seen the wider effects of the Good Food Box beyond their dinner tables.
“This fall, the price of the turkeys at the store was outrageous, as in $70 a turkey,” Palliser says. “We had a 10-pound turkey in the Good Food Box listed for sale for $33. I went shopping a few weeks ago and the price of the turkey went down to something like $34. The meats, although frozen, are looking fresher there as well.”
Community members in Hopedale felt that part of the solution to achieving food security came from the past: gardening.
There is a long history of successful gardening in Labrador, dating back to the 1700s, when Moravian missionaries gardened in the region.
Raised-bed gardening was a necessity in Hopedale, as the soil is primarily sand, and the town is built on bedrock.
“They had gardens, and if they did it, we can do it,” says Juliana Flowers, coordinator of NiKigijavut Hopedalimi: Our Food in Hopedale, which is supporting a new raised bed community garden for Hopedale residents.
Potatoes, turnips, carrots, spinach, cabbage, beets, onion, calendula, and mesclun were grown in the community garden.
As part of the project, Food First NL is providing information sessions and workshops, where residents learned about gardening, composting and greenhouses, as well as the methods to extend the growing season.
Another major issue raised through the CLFAs was the need for more opportunities to build traditional and contemporary food skills in the region, as well as provide more general information and resources about healthy eating.
The purpose of Nain’s NiKiKautik (“a place where food is”) Cooking Program is to teach a blend of traditional Inuit and contemporary cooking skills using wild and store-bought foods in a group setting.
The group meets with a cooking instructor twice a week to talk about food and make a variety, and sometimes fusion, of traditional and contemporary food—think stuffed Arctic Char or Swedish moose meatballs—that they can bring home for their families and friends at the end of the day.
The class has already started to create a network of cooking teachers. The participants of the program now help other community groups deliver cooking demonstrations and prepare food for the monthly elder feasts in the community.
Funding support for the NiKigijavut Nunatsiavutinni: Our Food in Nunastiavut Project comes from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Innovation Strategy on Achieving Healthier Weights in Canada's Communities.