PHOTOS: How Families Eat In The Arctic: From An $18 Box Of Cookies To Polar Bear Stew
In the most northerly Canadian territory of Nunavut, grocery shopping is expensive.
Like, really expensive.
So much so that residents regularly post in a Facebook group called Feeding My Family to share photos of high prices at their local stores.
A package of vanilla creme cookies: $18.29. A bunch of grapes: $28.58. A container of baby formula: $26.99.
Leesee Papatsie, founder of the Facebook group, says she spends at least $500 a week on food for her family of five — and that's just for basics in the capital of Iqaluit, a city of some 7,000 residents.
Because it costs a lot to fly goods into communities in remote regions of the Arctic Archipelago, there's not much that can be done to drastically reduce prices, she explains. But that's why — in a territory where about 84% of the population identifies as Inuit — "country food" is still the preferred source of sustenance.
These traditional Inuit foods include arctic char, seal, polar bear and caribou — often consumed raw, frozen or dried. The foods, which are native to the region, are packed with the vitamins and nutrients people need to stay nourished in the harsh winter conditions. The parts of the animal that aren't edible, like the fur and skins, are used to create clothes and other products that hunters can then sell to make a living.
"We've got to find ways that work in the North," Papatsie says. "What's already working in the North is Inuit culture — harvesting, sewing, making art. So it's not reinventing the wheel but working with the wheel that's already there."
And that includes sharing meals and leftovers not just with your neighbors, but with anyone in the community who could use a little something extra to eat.
Acacia Johnson, an Alaskan photographer, spent several seasons documenting these customs in Arctic Bay on the northern tip of Baffin Island, where the population is around 750.
Johnson first received a Fulbright grant in 2014 to complete a "poetic landscape project" in the small community. She lived with a local family for four months and sometimes joined groups on hunting and fishing trips out on the ice.
"I went there to make a photo project about the importance of the Arctic landscape to people, and I don't know what that was going to look like. I guess I was imagining landscape pictures," she says now. "But I realized that the best way to show people's connection to the land is through the hunting practices, because the land is the food source that sustains people."
But it's extremely sensitive to take pictures of someone skinning a seal, Johnson says. She remembers the question a hunter asked her the first time she went out on the ice: "You're not Greenpeace, are you?"
In 1976, Greenpeace Canada launched a graphic anti-sealing campaign that picked up steam around the globe. The environmentalist organization has since issued several apologies to Inuit communities, saying that they intended to target the commercial sealing industry and not independent hunters. But the impacts of that campaign are still felt by Inuit communities in Canada and Greenland decades later.
In 2009, the European Union banned the trade of seal products. Although the provision included an exception for seals sourced through Inuit hunts, the market for seal products suffered an intense decline. In 2015, seal pelt exports from Greenland had dropped by 90%.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, a filmmaker from Iqaluit, explored the detrimental effect of anti-sealing legislation and environmental campaigning on Canadian Inuit hunters in her 2016 documentary Angry Inuk. The film shows how the drop in seal prices has made it more difficult for hunters to afford hunting supplies, earn an income and ultimately feed their families.
In a region that already suffers from poverty and food insecurity — a 2014 report by Action Canada found that almost 70% of all households in Nunavut struggle to obtain nutritious and affordable food — less money means less food on the table.
Wade Thorhaug, executive director of the Qajuqturvik Food Centre in Iqaluit, is trying to fix that. But it's not easy to allocate resources so that everybody has enough to eat.
"There's not a whole lot of public funds available for things like a daily meal program or a food bank," Thorhaug says.
The center operates on donations and government funding from a program called Urban Programming for Indigenous Peoples. The funds are awarded to organizations that build skills and prepare residents for employment preparation, so Qajuqturvik offers culinary training and work experience alongside their meal program, which provides 150 to 200 free meals a day for those who walk through their door.
They serve traditional and nontraditional foods — polar bear stew made the lunch menu on Nov. 11, the day Thorhaug spoke to NPR. Thorhaug says they're looking for a hunter to come on staff in order to be able to provide the community with more country food options.
"We're just making sure that people can have one reliable meal per day that ideally is as nutritious and as delicious as possible," Thorhaug says. "And also, when it's available, to be as culturally appropriate as possible."
There's another way the community looks out for its members when it comes to food. In Arctic Bay, people hold community feasts to make sure no one goes hungry. Hunters will lay out the catch, like narwhal, and everyone enjoys the meal in each other's company. This is especially significant for families who may not have the equipment or skills to hunt themselves. They still get a chance to give their children the nutritional benefits of their traditional foods.
Food-sharing occurs on a smaller scale too, and is a regular part of life in Nunavut. Johnson recalls how her host family would prepare large breakfasts every day and invite neighbors or community members over to share, sometimes even posting about extras on Facebook so that anybody in need of a hearty meal could pop by.
Papatsie says that despite the high rate of food insecurity in the region, she believes the culturally ingrained act of sharing keeps many people from struggling.
"Eating has always been kind of sacred to the Inuit because years ago there were a lot of starvations," she says. "So eating together is one of the stronger Inuit customs we have. It's who we are."
And the biggest solution moving forward, she believes, is to invest in programs that keep the Inuit tradition alive by teaching younger generations about hunting, harvesting, weaving and other arts and crafts, even in the face of a changing climate.
Over the past three decades, the oldest and thickest type of Arctic ice has declined by 95%. This threatens the surrounding ecosystems and the people who depend on it for survival.
On her most recent visit to Arctic Bay in the spring of 2018, Johnson accompanied families on camping trips out on the land meant to pass Inuit customs down. There's a stark contrast in the generational divide, she says — some of the elders remember a time before Inuit lived in settled communities, while their grandchildren are growing up in thriving towns with smartphones and social media.
But on those trips, they find common ground in the practices that have kept their communities alive for milleniums.
"The vastness of indigenous knowledge really made an impression on me, and it's something that I don't really expect to ever understand," Johnson says. "But it's been an honor to be allowed to witness it."
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