NEWS: Climate Change May 15, 2012 - 5:13 am

Climate change hurts access to country foods in Iqaluit: study

“One week we had no food. We only had one dried noodle pack for four people"

JANE GEORGE

Arctic climate change can affect food security, suggests a new study that looked at how unseasonably warm weather during the winter of 2010-2011 affected country food supplies in Iqaluit.

That winter was worth looking at because changing environmental conditions, which affect the ability of Inuit to harvest traditional food, may become more common in the future, says McGill graduate student Sara Statham, who talked about her research at the recent International Polar Year conference in Montreal.

For her research, Statham worked closely with local hunters and spoke to 100 households in Iqaluit to see how the extreme winter two years ago affected the traditional food system in the city.

Statham heard how “we had rain in February, and Inuit don’t expect that. It’s supposed to be the coldest time of year.”

And she looked at whether those conditions made it harder to obtain traditional food, causing more food insecurity among Iqaluit’s more vulnerable residents — people living in social housing units, which comprise one in five units in Iqaluit.

Statham found the increased environmental stresses did hurt hunters’ harvests and the food supplies of people living in social housing.

And while some managed to adapt, people on income support suffered the most.

When poor socio-economic conditions are coupled with poor environmental conditions, the traditional food system suffers, Statham concluded.

People in public housing told her that the availability, access, and quality of country food during the winter of 2010-2011 was “the worst year since I can remember.”

Most hunters said the warmer weather brought more seals to Frobisher Bay compared to previous years. But while they described that winter as a “window of opportunity” for seals, the dangerous ice conditions and lack of access to a boat prevented many from taking advantage of that plenty.

In contrast to seals, most hunters reported that caribou were less available compared with previous years because they were further away, near Amadjuak Lake.

These changes were felt by people who said, “this year there was barely any country food. Everyone is searching for it.”

Some said that when they didn’t eat country food regularly, they had digestive difficulties, such as hot flashes, heartburn, and stomach pains. Many said they were forced to switch to store food, but that food made them feel “cold” and “empty.”

To cope with the changes, about half the people Statham spoke to reduced the amount of food they ate. They cut down the size of meal portions or, in extreme cases, skipped meals altogether.

“One week we had no food. We only had one dried noodle pack for four people. We can’t live like that,” said one person she spoke to.

Some parents said they would make sure that their children were fed before they would eat.

Others also sold their possessions: “I sold an extra skidoo in January. Even though both my wife and I had work, we had to sell it to get enough food.”

Most public housing residents obtain their country food through sharing networks, but that network was hit hard by the scarcity of country food that winter, leading some to say “people rarely bring me any caribou meat, so I ain’t gonna share now.”

“When they catch a caribou, they hide it now,” said one resident. “Even relatives. People are greedy now because there is less. Some people keep their freezers in their bedroom.”

Those stresses are related to the extreme environmental conditions experienced during the winter 2010-2011, Statham says.

“If residents were socially and economically stable, it is likely that they would have been even more resilient to food system vulnerability and related food insecurity,” she said.

As for solutions, many suggested that there should be a community freezer or community kitchens for people to prepare food together, share cooking skills, as well as learn about nutrition and health.

Others said more frequent country food markets could increase access to traditional foods.

If you’re curious to learn more about Statham’s research, she will visit Iqaluit May 23 to June 2, when she plans to share more detailed results with people in the city.