Isolation efforts to protect against the spread of COVID-19 have made it nearly impossible for people to travel south to the grocery store. This is in addition to the shortened lifespan of ice roads due to climate change, skyrocketing food costs, and dwindling aid from large organizations that supplement food supplies.
All of these factors came into play for communities accessible by air in Ontario, which saw food costs increase by 400% during the pandemic, according to figures proposed by the Mikinakoos Children’s Fund, which supports remote communities.
Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation is the last community on the road north in Ontario.
The restrictions brought on by COVID-19 have definitely made this cost change “very noticeable,” said Mishkeegogamang chief David Masakeyash.
The impact of food prices, the difficulty of regularly accessing fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter and the lack of variety of foods available were concerns for the director of the community school of Missabay, Lorraine Pitawanakwat, who was trying to keep its 200 students from kindergarten to elementary school. 8 fed.
The Mishkeegogamang First Nation School provides breakfasts and dinners for the children.
“Because of COVID, we haven’t received the same community support as in the past,” Pitawanakwat said.
Many First Nations communities closed their borders to outsiders and Mishkeegogamang was no exception.
“Fewer trips have been made due to the restrictions,” Masakeyash said, due to fear of introducing the virus into the community and the terrible impact it would have.
“Some private organizations that sent food this year were not allowed to do so due to security concerns related to COVID,” Pitawanakwat said.
In the south, many nonprofits ceased to function because volunteers were confined to their homes, and in the north, access to communities was restricted.
The Mikinakoos Children’s Fund, a Thunder Bay-based charity, is an organization that has supported Mishkeegogamang. The charity’s backpack program aims to feed a child for two to three weeks.
“It was very important this year. The main shipment we received for the whole year was through them. No one else really knows us. We are a small community. We don’t have a lot of staff. Like many other small communities, we are alone. We’re not really tied to bigger communities or bigger organizations, ”Pitawanakwat said.
She helped advise Mikinakoos on what food to put in the backpacks, which were actually boxes.
“They asked me to say what we wanted and we ended up sending large boxes of food to each family with a variety of food,” she said.
Pitawanakwat said Mikinakoos support was even greater this year given that Northern Ontario’s nutrition program only started in January due to COVID. The program, which usually runs year-round, sends fruits and vegetables north from farmers in southern Ontario.
Masakeyash said the federal government has dispatched an emergency food supply to Mishkeegogamang to feed the 1,300 living on the reserve in case access is cut. Food storage occupied the band office and community hall.
“We needed to have plans in place to make sure that if something happens, if a shutdown occurs, we need to have basic supplies and other supplies on hand where families can be helped. We have to be ready all the time…. It was a good thing, ”he said.
The majority of these essentials are still available and will be kept “until it is absolutely clear that they are no longer needed,” Masakeyash said.
COVID also meant that community members could not travel the 35 miles to Pickle Lake or make the three-and-a-half-hour one-way trip to Sioux Lookout to the grocery store because, upon their return, they had to self-isolate for two weeks. There is no grocery store on the reserve.
However, even before COVID, Pitawanakwat says she was concerned about the food children in the north were getting. Prior to working in Mishkeegogamang, Pitawanakwat worked in the air-accessible communities of Kashechewan and Kingfisher.
“I have a feeling that in general, children are not getting the variety of foods that we hope all children in Canada could have due to poverty and lack of access to fresh food,” she declared.
Processed foods are the most common in northern grocery stores because they keep longer. Milk, juice, and even potatoes are more expensive because their weight makes shipping expensive.
“Vendors who have stores in northern communities monopolize the prices however they want and that’s part of the problem,” Masakeyash said.
Pitawanakwat says northern and remote communities are also facing a reduction in product trucking time in winter, as ice roads that were once operational for months are now only operational for days or weeks due to the change. climate. Gravel runways can only accommodate small planes that fly in grocery stores.
Both Pitawanakwat and Masakeyash say infrastructure improvements are needed to address food issues. Support, they say, must come from the federal and Ontario governments.
“It would be very beneficial for the community to have their own store, their own supplier, where they can contact them any day and get the necessary supplies,” Masakeyash said.
Pitawanakwat says partnerships should be formed where warehouses are built at a central distribution location that would allow greater shipment of goods.
She would also like to see partnerships formed with Mennonites and farmers in the north to teach agriculture to community members; and she would like young people to learn greenhouses in schools.
Pitawanakwat says First Nations need to ‘decolonize our food’, but points out that subsistence hunting, trapping and fishing are becoming increasingly difficult with the encroachment of mining, the clearing of roads for power lines and industrial water pollution.