Hunger among Inuit families is so prevalent in Arctic Quebec that it could be why almost half their children are shorter than average, new research suggests.
A paper published in the Journal of the Canadian Public Health Association says the height discrepancy implies that food insecurity is a long-running problem — not just something that happens occasionally.
“The observed association between food insecurity and linear growth suggests that the diet quality and quantity of children from food-insecure households had been compromised for a long time,” the paper says.
There have been numerous studies in recent years documenting food insecurity in the North, which is defined as occurring when a family feels there isn’t enough on the table and either children or adults have to eat less as a result.
A McGill University study found in 2010 that 41 per cent of Nunavut children between three and five lived in homes where they either had no food for an entire day or where their parents couldn’t afford to feed them at least part of the time. Two-thirds of the parents said there were times when they ran out of food and couldn’t afford to buy more.
In a 2012 study, Statistics Canada found that 22 per cent of Inuit reported going hungry during the previous year because they couldn’t afford food.
Nunavut’s territorial nutritionist has found nearly three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes. Half of youths 11 to 15 years old sometimes go to bed hungry.
Wednesday’s study by researchers affiliated with Laval University is believed to be the first to look into the physical consequences. They looked at 294 children between the ages of eight and 14 from several villages in Nunavik, the name for northern Quebec. About half of those children came from homes considered food-insecure.
They found a high correlation between slow growth rates and food insecurity.
“Food-insecure children were significantly shorter in stature, by an average of two centimetres, than their food-secure counterparts,” the report says. “For children of this age group, this is close to half a year’s growth.”
They also found children from hungry families tended to be more anemic.
“The results of this study raise concerns about the long-term implications of food insecurity for Nunavik,” the report concludes.
Many causes have been advanced to explain hunger in the North.
Jobs are scarce, leading to poverty, which combined with high prices in grocery stores restricts the amount of food families can afford. So-called “country food” — traditional foods such as caribou, char or seal — is also made expensive by the need to buy hunting supplies and ammunition.
The federal government subsidizes the cost of shipping food deemed healthy and nutritious, but northerners remain skeptical about whether the program actually reduces grocery bills.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced protests over high food costs at his Iqaluit stop earlier this week during his summer northern tour.