January 29, 2015

Fort Albany’s Fight Against Food Insecurity

According to The Canadian Institute of Health Research’s report on Household Food Insecurity in Canada, food insecurity indicates deprivation in terms of a basic human need: access to nutritious food in sufficient quantities and of sufficient quality to maintain good health.

The CIHR’s 2012 report states that 13% of Canadian households, about 4 million people, including 1.15 million children, experience food insecurity and that households in which the respondent identified as Aboriginal had a rate of food insecurity more than double that of all Canadian households (27%).

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The CIHR report also found that despite rigorous measurement and monitoring of household food insecurity in Canada since 2005, the problem has not abated. In fact, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, it has grown or persisted in every province and territory.

Fort Albany, a First Nations community in Northern Ontario, 450 km north of Timmins and accessible by air and winter road has decided to take a serious stand against food insecurity in their community.

Joan Metatawabin is the Student Nutrition Coordinator at Peetabeck Academy where she started a school nutrition program 20 years ago, when she was a teacher. Joan was dismayed that so many of her students were coming to school hungry and has found that, since starting the program, eating breakfast regularly has improved student concentration and overall performance at school, confirming the notion that students learn best when their minds and bodies are well-fueled. Because of Joan’s efforts, each student at Peetabeck Academy receives a healthy breakfast and two snacks every day.

“To this day,” Joan said, “families still find it hard to feed their children,” citing the complex issues of food insecurity, including high shipping costs and lack of access to nutritionally rich food. Because of the need for better food and nutrition for everyone who lives in Fort Albany, not only children, Joan also helps coordinate a farmers’ market. The market has been running for ten years and for the last three years has been able to occur roughly twice a month. The market is held in Peetabeck Academy’s auditorium because it’s the only building in Fort Albany big enough to host the amount of people that attend. The farmers’ market allows Fort Albany to coordinate their efforts to fight food insecurity. Thanks to a partnership with Foodshare and a Nutrition North subsidy, they are able to purchase the food from Ontario Food Terminal at wholesale prices and have it shipped at a subsidized price. This means that food at the market costs about half what it would cost in Fort Albany stores.

“One of the difficulties in running the farmers’ market,” Joan explained, “is lack of space.” The school’s auditorium is not ideal because it still needs to function as gymnasium for the student activities. “It would be great to have a dedicated space, like a cooperative store, or a food hub,” Joan said. She also stated that keeping up with payments for the food and finding volunteers to help run the market are other factors that make running the program difficult, but she was optimistic saying that they are constantly looking to improve and expand the programs they have.

In addition to the student nutrition program and the farmers’ market, Peetabeck Academy also has a small greenhouse that has produced three vegetable crops over the last three years. “This is great as a learning tool,” Joan said, but she’d love to see a larger greenhouse built in Fort Albany, so that residents could grow a substantial amount of produce. The key to this and other expansions is of course time and resources.


Recent criticisms of the federal government’s Nutrition North program and rising food prices have renewed discussion about food insecurity, especially in Canada’s north where conditions are critical. CBC recently reported that a bag of milk can cost $15  in Wapakeka First Nation, not far from Fort Albany. Joan mentioned that the Nutrition North subsidy isn’t helpful for everyone. Since the federal government switched from the Food by Mail Program to Nutrition North program, it has become harder to buy food from the same places as before, since not enough companies are registered. As it is, the only place to purchase food in Fort Albany that is registered with Nutrition North, is The Northern Store and even there, the savings are not necessarily, or sufficiently passed down to the consumers. “What happens”, Joan said, “is that many stores don’t bother to apply for the subsidy or it doesn’t end up reducing the cost for consumers in a very significant way. In addition not all items are covered under the subsidy.” As Joan said, “there are a few items they should subsidize, like canned fruit, which isn’t covered.”

There are a few groups popping up, residents of Canada’s north and concerned Canadians who are also trying to make a difference, including Feeding My Family and Helping Our Northern Neighbours. ONEXONE’s First Nations School Breakfast Program, which has been running for 7 years, provides free nutritious breakfasts to children every school day in some of Canada’s most remote locations.


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