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Canada must step up to address failed Nutrition North

The announcement this week that Nutrition North has failed to address the needs of rural and remote communities is disheartening – yet doesn’t surprise many within the anti-poverty community.

This Tuesday, the news broke that even with Ottawa’s increased spending by 65% last year to address food scarcity in northern communities, the numbers show an increase in food insecurity.

We all know that food is often a way to come together, to congregate, to sustain and to nourish. Food will always be a bigger conversation than merely basic needs. So this raises the question: who really gets to sit at the table and make the important decisions about food security in Canada?

With the increase to the Canada Child Benefit that is expected to miss 20% of Indigenous families living on reserve, the lack of urgency to join all of the other G7 countries in implementing a National School Food program and the rising threat to northern communities traditional food practices due to climate change – among other reasons – highlights how concerning it is that more hasn’t been done.

For anyone within the anti-poverty or food movements, it isn’t easy to forget the statistics of hunger found in the North. 7 out of 10 Inuit preschoolers in Nunavut are food insecure, 31% live in moderately food insecure households, and of those numbers, 25% are severely food insecure. Of the severely food insecure, 90% report they go hungry, 76% note that they skip meals, and 60% go without food for a full day.

To be clear, these statistics represent preschoolers. Children who repeatedly reap the most detrimental effects of various failed food initiatives. But if you ask those in Northern communities, any will tell you they saw this coming. As we watched food bank usage rise with the cost of living across the country, it’s not surprising at all that food conditions in the North are declining at a much faster rate.

Although we weren’t shocked about the ineffectiveness of the program, I never imagined that since its 2011 introduction rates of food insecurity would rise 13%.

Maybe I am young and naïve, or maybe I am just tired of the lack of urgency on the part of our government to address what many of us would consider a calamity; an emergency that has left our most vulnerable, our future generations, to bear the brunt. But how we have come to a place where 70% of children 3 or 4 years old don’t have access to food – let alone food that nourishes them – is tragic.

But it is also imperative that we realize it can no longer be a conversation merely about grocery prices.

I had the honour of speaking with Cindy Blackstock last week before a panel. And even though our conversation wasn’t about food security explicitly, the issue of reconciliation must be at the forefront of this discussion as well.

When she spoke to the room she emphasized the reverberations of the disproportionate levels of poverty for many Indigenous communities; the impact of overcrowded and inadequate housing, or a lack of clean drinking water, continues to have on children. That the way we have deprioritized the human rights of Indigenous children in this country is at its core, immoral.

“This isn’t the answer Indigenous children need to hear. They need to hear they are sacred, they are valuable, and that they are worth the money just like everyone else.”

For me, the results are clear: Nutrition North – as the leading solution to combat food insecurity in the North – has failed. The program hasn’t worked to address the myriad of issues that contribute to the inexcusable conditions here in Canada, and there is no longer room to “hope for the best” while millions are deprived of their basic human right to food.

This speaks volumes to not only who gets to sit around the policy table, but also the dinner table; who gets to eat and be nourished, who gets to grow, and who gets to just be a kid. And that even though we live in one, united country, we are divided on how we eliminate child poverty to ensure preschool children don’t have to go a day without food.

This isn’t just about access to food that will sustain our children, it is also about reconciliation. It is about addressing our poor track record for resolving the food crisis, which has resulted from a history of colonialism that is as true today as it was 100 years ago. The government must stand up and listen to civil society who are shouting for an urgent inquiry to address the unmet needs and realities of northern populations.

Canada can, and must, do better.

Alexandra Zannis is the Project and Outreach Coordinator at Canada Without Poverty.

*This post is cross-posted at www.cwp-csp.ca

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