Climate change, conflict, rising hunger — these are just a few of the challenges that our world is currently facing. 

In recent months, we've seen prices for staple foods skyrocket to record levels, affecting the ability of millions of households around the world to feed themselves and their families. 

But while the hunger crisis may be a global phenomenon, it doesn't affect everyone equally. 

In Canada, where food prices are on a steep incline, Indigenous communities in remote regions are the hardest hit. Fresh fruit in the North can cost as much as $28, ketchup $16, and a loaf of white bread — a basic staple in many households — costs $7 in Labrador, compared to $4 in Ottawa.

What Is Going On?

“Food prices have always been higher in remote communities,” Dr. Malek Batal, Canada research chair in nutrition and health inequalities, told Global Citizen. “Studies show that the Health Canada nutritious basket for a family of four was ‌… double in certain remote communities as it was in the major urban centres in the same province.”

On average, a family in Attawapiskat, a First Nations community in northern Ontario, spent $1,909 on food a month, compared to $847 in Toronto, according to a report released in 2016. Given that inflation has reached all-time high levels this year, those figures are likely much bleaker today. In Australia, the picture is no different: the cost of getting food in far-removed communities is significantly higher than anywhere else in the country.

Extreme weather, high transportation costs, and limited access to local produce have always contributed to these discrepancies. However, Indigenous communities are now facing rising food prices — a trend likely to worsen as the world slides into an economic recession.

The 9% surge in food prices most of the country is grappling with will actually feel like 20% for remote Indigenous communities, according to non-profit organization Canadian Feed the Children. Increases in gas prices and the ongoing war in Ukraine aren't helping either.

“With the current inflation and higher prices even in major centres in the south of the country, these prices have increased even more in remote areas, threatening a worsening of food insecurity in Indigenous communities,” Batal said.

An estimated 4.4 million Canadians suffer from food insecurity, but the rate at which it occurs for First Nations is three to five times higher than the overall population — especially for families with children, according to Batal. And because access to nutrition is intersectional, other factors such as age and economic status can compound the issue. 

“Families on social assistance and those with children experience food insecurity more,” Batal added.

What Are 3 Key Facts That People Should Know?

  • Food prices are significantly higher in remote areas than in the rest of Canada — and Indigenous communities are the hardest hit.
  • Everyday items like fruit can cost as much as $28, and the average Indigenous household living in a remote area can spend twice as much on food compared to Canada’s major cities.
  • Food insecurity is affecting people’s ability to lead a healthy life, causing psychological stress, diabetes, and obesity, fuelling poverty and systemic inequality.

What Are the Main Causes?

Research shows that in remote parts of the country people depend on two main sources for food: natural resources — land and freshwater — and, usually, a major retailer acting as a buffer between the community and global food market. The problem is that the retail option often remains out of reach for these areas due to geographical isolation.

Because growing food in sub-Arctic regions (like those in Northern Canada) is a near-impossible task, food often has to be delivered to on-reserve communities by plane or ship at a high cost. Historically, this has limited access to fresh produce, leaving communities with no choice but to rely on expensive imported products.

What’s more, First Nations have limited sovereignty over their land, meaning they usually cannot engage in land- and water-based activities, and instead have to buy food from outside sources. 

Hunting and fishing, both traditional activities for many Indigenous communities, are heavily regulated in Canada, and therefore do not offer sustainable sources of food. Add that to a long legacy of systemic racism, settler-colonial capitalism, and intergenerational knowledge-sharing disruptions caused by the residential school system, and you have a perfect storm of conditions to exacerbate food insecurity.

What Impact Is It Having on People’s Lives?

The inability to access food at affordable prices contributes to poverty and inequality, but also to poor physical and mental health, to name a few of its perverse effects. 

Diabetes and obesity, for instance, are twice as likely to affect Indigenous communities living in northern Ontario than the rest of the country, and women and girls are among the most at risk. Depression, anxiety, and intense psychological stress are also more prevalent in these communities, partly because of the uncertainty surrounding food provision and its cost.

How Does It Relate to Extreme Poverty?

The Global Goals, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, set out 17 targets to end extreme poverty globally. As part of that mandate, ending hunger, achieving food insecurity, and improving nutrition through sustainable agriculture are considered priority areas.

In particular, the UN urges world leaders to promote universal access to food and end all forms of malnutrition — something that Canada has yet to achieve.

Because of its intricate nature, hunger also has a ripple effect on the achievement of all other goals, including Goal 3 for the health and well-being of all. 

Who Are the Key Players in Tackling the Issue?

In Canada, organizations such as the Indigenous Food Systems Network (ISFN) and the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (WGIFS) are spearheading efforts to address food insecurity on-reserve. Bringing researchers, policymakers, and Indigenous food producers together, their goal is to share resources and to create space for Indigenous people to take part in decision-making processes related to food security.

Food Secure Canada, another organization founded in 2001, also works to improve access to food across the country, playing a key role in urging the government to adopt a national school food program. In December 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie Bibeau and Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development Karina Gould to roll it out, but the program hasn’t yet been launched.

Finally, influencers and content creators such as Shina Nova and Kyra Flaherty are becoming an integral part of the conversation by raising awareness among their followers.

What Action Can We All Take Against It?

According to civil society actors, the first step in addressing food insecurity for Indigenous communities is strengthening local food systems and giving power back to communities to make decisions. 

“For First Nations, traditional food represents much more than nutrition, it plays important cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial roles,” Assembly of First Nations Environment Lands and Water Senior Director Tonio Sadik said in a statement. “There is an urgent need to address systemic problems and barriers relating to First Nations food systems, security, and sovereignty in a way that honours First Nations knowledge, leadership, and rights. New programs, policies, and legislation must be created to protect the environment from further degradation and ensure that First Nations have access to a healthy diet, including traditional food.”

For Batal, this would prove more useful than increasing financial support to families — something that he says has provided insufficient assistance in the past.

Ultimately, dismantling the longstanding inequalities and oppression that Indigenous people still face will require continuous work from all of us. As individuals, we can start by amplifying the voices and initiatives of those who invest their time and energy in helping to create a more equitable world. 

Global Citizen Explains

Defeat Poverty

Why Food Is So Expensive on First Nations Reserves in Canada

By Sarah El Gharib