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How Traditional Food Is Helping Communities in a Changing Arctic

As hunting grows hazardous, Arctic community centers provide meals of whale and seal.
A man walks along the shoreline in Iqaluit, Canada, in February of 2010.

A man walks along the shoreline in Iqaluit, Canada, in February of 2010.

Between the Igloo Church and the Piviniit Thrift Store, on a street in the far north of Canada, is a food center with an unusual mission: to feed the local community on the meat of seals, whales, and other charismatic Arctic creatures.

The Qajuqturvik Food Centre is based in Iqaluit, and while it's the capital city of Nunavut, it's also about as remote as can be, with a population of 7,740 and a serious food problem.

The price of groceries in Nunavut is hair-raisingly high: on average, 140 percent higher than the rest of Canada, leading to startling spikes in the cost of basic food items. According to the advocacy project Feeding My Family, two organic chicken breasts in Iqaluit can cost $45 Canadian, while a kilogram of withered tangerines could set you back almost $19 Canadian.

Of course, the ancestors of the Inuits who still live in Nunavut were not eating chicken and tangerines. For thousands of years, they survived by hunting animals that live in the Arctic, and which the Inuits today call "country food." The category includes dishes such as muktuk (whale skin and blubber) alongside seal, Arctic char, muskox, and geese—in other words, anything that can be caught in the sky, land, or ocean. Both sustainable and nutritious, this hunting lifestyle allowed the Inuits to survive in the harshest of environments.

For people used to Western diets, and particularly those primed to condemn any kind of whale hunt, the value of country food can be hard to understand. In August, an Inuk father received online backlash after posting a picture of his son with his first harvest—a Hudson Bay beluga whale—on Twitter. But as climate change and the legacy of colonialism squeeze these traditions from all sides, innovative food programs are helping to sustain it.

"Hunters that are active now have benefited from the knowledge of their predecessors," says Wade Thorhaug, executive director of the Qajuqturvik Food Centre. "But there are a lot of people that did not grow up in that environment, so, despite spending their entire lives in the Arctic, have never been hunting. There's a lot of intergenerational trauma that exists because of this disconnection with the land."

As Western norms gradually made their way up north, the Inuit way of life changed, and the number of active hunters declined. Residential schools took children away from their homes, so that they no longer learned the ancestral hunting skills needed to survive in the north, while nomadic communities settled into permanent homes. Poverty has also driven people away from the hunt, as they weigh the cost of running and maintaining a Ski-Doo and the necessary hunting equipment against the likelihood of success.

The Inuit people have also found themselves on the front lines of climate change. Changing ice and wind patterns and altered migrations of wildlife have made it difficult—and also potentially dangerous—for hunters to roam the land as they once did. The likelihood of hazards such as falling through the ice has increased as age-old knowledge becomes obsolete in the face of these unpredictable conditions.

The decline in country food has contributed to the extreme food insecurity experienced in the far north—according to one study, 70 percent of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure households—as well as to a disconnection from the land and a loss of cultural identity. By serving up meals that would turn the stomach of the average American (past offerings have included seal liver and intestines), the Qajuqturvik Food Centre is addressing these problems.

"The people in this community—some of whom are in their 60s and 70s—some of them have memories of growing up in camps, like hunting camps, going fishing in the summer, hunting seals in the spring, caribou in the autumn. That sort of history is not so distant," Thorhaug says. "There's a strong connection to identity with these foods."

Like individual community members and families, the food center is subject to fluctuations of weather and migrations, and cannot simply supply country foods on demand. Instead, they offer traditional meals to locals whenever they can, by forming relationships with hunters and buying meat off them whenever it becomes available. This means that community members once again have an opportunity to eat the food that sustained their ancestors for generations.

Crucially, Thorhaug says, the center is not a food bank, which he criticizes as an unethical model that essentially foists unwanted food upon the poor. "We always provide food that we feel could be sold at a restaurant," Thorhaug says. Unlike processed foods and unfamiliar groceries, country food always provokes a discussion among community members about how it should be prepared.

Malcolm Ranta, executive director of The Ilisaqsivik Society, a community center based in a Nunavut hamlet called Clyde River, agrees that finding and offering country food increases the well-being of locals.

"You talk to anyone in Nunavut and you ask them: 'What are you hungry for? What food are you craving?' and they're going to tell you: muktuk, caribou, narwhal, char," Ranta says. "Everyone is craving country food, and you find that everyone is happier when they're eating country food. Everyone's in a better mood, people are sitting down and sharing food on the floor and having good conversation."

Ranta's organization is also figuring out how to increase community members' access to country food. But their approach is less about providing meals directly to inhabitants, and more about running programs that re-introduce people to their ancestors' traditional knowledge, such as pairing fatherless boys who never learned to hunt with elders who can teach them these skills. His center has also arranged other trips that include learning how to read the weather and snow patterns, identifying the plants and animals of the area, and mastering the traditional names for certain locations. Sometimes these land-based programs might involve an actual hunt, in which case the haul is used in other aspects of their community work, such as classes on postnatal nutrition.

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.