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Northern food insecurity

“We see a very, very bad and a very, very big problem,” Uche Nwankwo, Intern Professor at the Natural Resources Institute

Hunger haunts three out of four households in northern Manitoba with some families going entire days without food, new research has found.

Last summer a team of researchers from the University of Manitoba’s Natural Resources Centre surveyed 473 households in 14 communities across Manitoba’s north.

They found a 75 per cent incidence of household food insecurity – defined as lack of physical or economic access to food.

That’s eight times higher than the Canadian average and should be an eye-opener to anyone who thinks hungry people are a developing country’s problem, said one of the researchers involved in the study.

“We see a very, very bad and a very, very big problem,” said Uche Nwankwo, an agricultural economist interning at the university’s Natural Resources Institute.

The research project was led by the NRI Associate Professor Shirley Thompson and titled Growing Hope in Northern Manitoba’s Aboriginal Communities.

Nwankwo shared its findings during last week’s Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology conference in Winnipeg last week in a session devoted to the food and health crisis faced by Canada’s First Nations people.

No food available

The researchers were able to document both moderate and severe instances, finding the severity intensifies in more isolated communities. In fly-in communities virtually every household lacks nutritious food.

There they found 70 per cent of adults in households and one in every five children going without food for an entire day.

“It’s because there was actually no food available to them,” said Nwankwo.

Their report cites a problem stemming from lack of healthy foods in stores, expensive food prices, escalating transport costs, and high poverty rates. At the same time, food people might otherwise hunt or fish or raise themselves is in decline due to regulations limiting use and culture change.

It is a “lacking in the midst of plenty” Nwankwo said, with people living in communities where sugary pop and junk food is cheap and widely available, but milk costs $13 for a four-litre jug and fresh vegetables are expensive and often poor quality.

A comparison of food prices done as part of the research found food prices were 60 per cent higher in the North, with the same basket of nutritious food that would cost $233 in the south costing $375.

But they also found exceptions. In Nelson House they found insecurity rates notably lower, thanks to a community-supported country food project, engaging and employing local residents as gardeners and wild food procurers to collect, produce and distribute healthier homegrown foods.

Nwankwo said a recommendation of their research is that Nelson House’s initiative be replicated in other communities.

How we live

Byron Beardy, the food security co-ordinator for Four Arrows Regional Health Authority (FARHA) was also part of the Natural Resource Institute’s research team.

Hailing from Wasagamack First Nation, Beardy told the CIFST conference he sees a problem rooted as much in how people now live as how they eat.

Pre-contact with Europeans, “people were out on the land,” he said in an interview.

“It’s when the reserves started and they started building permanent housing that people were then all in one place. Then we just stay in and eat prepared and processed foods from the store.”

But this research project also explores the concerted effort underway in Manitoba’s north to find long-term solutions to their food and health crisis.

Many are putting their hope in the increasing number of backyard gardens planted every year.

Reclaiming skills

Just back from a 10-day stint in the Island Lake area of Manitoba, Beardy told the CIFST session 2010 gardening year has begun again in earnest in the region with both younger and older residents engaged in producing some of their own food.

In addition, greenhouses are being built and children are learning traditional indigenous planting methods and wild harvesting methods.

These are the skills that can reduce the cost of eating healthy in the north over time and they’re actually a reclamation of skills never entirely lost. Northerners quickly saw the advantages of small-scale agriculture in the 1930s, and at one time had gardens and even goats and cattle. Now it’s starting to come back, said Beardy.

“There’s more awareness that we can do this. We can produce more of our own local produce and local foods.”

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About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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