Caribou pizza. Muskox burgers. Arctic char loaf.
These may sound like gourmet dishes from an upscale, trendy restaurant serving Canadiana cuisine, but they’re actually the foods that the children of Arviat, Nunavut, reject.
Instead, kids in the small Arctic hamlet on the shores of Hudson Bay prefer chips, Kraft Dinner and Coke to the healthy, widely available fresh game and seafood that’s all around them.
This confused Shirley Tagalik, the chair of Arviat’s Health Committee.
She said that when she started asking Arviat women about their families' eating habits, she was surprised to learn that many weren't taking advantage of protein-rich local food.
“In Arviat, we live in the breadbasket of Nunavut. We always have access to country food, and country food is good food, and so we shouldn't have food security issues,” she tells The Huffington Post Canada in a telephone interview.
Arviat residents that have hunters in their families are more likely to eat “country food” — the caribou, goose and fish that are plentiful in the community all year round.
Part of the problem is that fewer and fewer families have hunting skills, but the youngest members of the community also have no interest in eating “country food”, and their parents aren’t encouraging it either.
“The idea that junk food is not healthy has not been widely spread,” 23-year-old resident Curtis Konek tells HuffPost Canada.
As part of a wide effort across Nunavut to teach healthy eating, Tagalik has helped start a youth education project with the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre in Nunavut and the local branch of Nunavut Arctic College called Atii Let’s Do It.
Atii Let’s Do It is a federally-funded program that targets kids’ favourite ways of learning — their friends and social media — to combat the notion that store-bought food is healthier.
A new way of teaching nutrition
The staggering number of Nunavut residents living with daily health issues underscores the need for action.
Almost 30 per cent of the territory’s people are obese, according to 2011 census data, and only 43 per cent of the population reported being in good or excellent health.
With just under half of Arviat’s population under age 18, Tagalik and the college’s staff are trying to use the community’s young people to spread new ideas about nutrition.
“We want to use youth to say, hey, your land, your culture around you, can provide so much more than just food,” says Jamie Bell, public affairs officer at Nunavut Arctic College. “Your connection to food is a connection to your identity as a people. You are what you eat.”
As part of the program, four of the youth were sent out to interview their peers about their eating habits. They brought back 296 surveys, with some shocking results.
About 26 per cent of the children’s dietary intake comes from sugar drinks, about 66 percent comes from carbs like chips, crackers, buns, Kraft Dinner and rice, said Tagalik.
Less than 20 per cent of most kids’ diets comes from protein, fruits and vegetables, she said.
They usually have fruit three times a month.
Myths about food rooted in town’s history
It’s not surprising that kids prefer salty, sugary snacks, but Tagalik says the distaste for fresh, local food comes from Arviat’s roots as a government reserve town — one in which the displaced Inuit people were given grocery store vouchers instead of paycheques.
Inuit tribes have lived in camps on the shores of Hudson Bay since the 12th century, but didn’t begin to settle in what is now Arviat until 1921, when the Hudsons’ Bay Company set up a trading post to trade furs. In the 1950s, the federal government forcibly relocated the local tribes when caribou migration patterns changed and the people began to starve. Soon after that, the government set up the area’s first Federal Day School, and a nursing station and other services soon followed. It was one of the last Inuit communities to be created through forced relocation.
According to census data, just over 2,300 people live in the small hamlet, but it has one of the highest birth rates in the country. In StatsCan data from 2006, 13 per cent of the population reported being out of work.
“The impact of colonization is still strong here. A number of [people] felt, that if you had made it, you would be serving your kids ‘niquingit’ food, stuff you'd bought from the store, and there was this idea that if you were poor you ate caribou meat.”
These messages, driven by a lack of education, are still pervasive in Arviat and other Inuit communities in the Arctic.
Kids see ads on TV and think drinking a can of Coke makes them look cool, says Bell.
“We never told them sugar was going to rot their children’s teeth. There was just an assumption that people should just know this stuff,” says Tagalik.
With these kinds of eating habits, children in Arviat are on the fast track to becoming diabetic, overweight and suffering from the other health problems that plague many Inuit.
Food security is just as important
Grocery store food in small Arctic communities is also expensive, making the push to teach people in the community to rely on local food even more urgent.
The federal government has come under fire recently for its Nutrition North Canada program, which aimed to subsidize the cost of store-bought food. The auditor general has agreed to review the program, which residents say isn’t working.
The Atii group’s project has received roughly $289,000 in federal funding, on the condition that they put together a healthy eating game show, which is being uploaded to YouTube, and an app, said Jamie Bell, public affairs officer at the Nunavut Arctic College. Those resources will then be shared with other communities in Nunavut.
Patrick and Curtis working on interview questions for Inuit elders about traditional food and edible plant use
Members of the youth media team, who are also learning film editing, storyboarding and animation skills while making their game show, say the messages are influencing them too.
“I’m having fruit now, I just feel like it,” says 18-year-old resident Corrina Tugak, who just graduated from John Arnalukjuak High School. She says she really likes pineapple, that it makes her feel “energized.”
Curtis and Corinna work on layout for their healthy eating and composting messages
But pineapple is an exotic luxury in Arctic communities, where the cost of flying in produce makes it prohibitively expensive to buy. While the tropical fruit is available pre-cut in Arviat’s Northern Store — as are bags of bananas, grapes and apples — three sliced rings of pineapple can cost more than $6, and a three-pound bag of apples around $8.
Four slices of pineapple cost $6.22 at the Northern Store in Arviat
A three-pound bag of apples costs $8.29
Grapes cost $6.29
The federal government’s money is also subsidizing other food security initiatives in the community. The Arviat Wellness Commitee is running a Young Hunters Program, where young adults teach eight- to 10-year-olds how to hunt small game, and a food sciences program at John Arnalukjuak, which aims to teach teens which plants they can grow in greenhouses and which are native to the Arctic.
Bell says the point of the youth programming isn’t just to improve the collective health of Arviat’s people — it’s also a new, creative attempt to revive interest in Inuit culture.
“We need to harness the strength of our culture before it becomes depleted.”