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President of the Northern Farm Training Institute, Jackie Milne, pictured with Kim Rapati in Hay River on June 6, 2020, said she tried getting help from the territorial government’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment but received no formal response.

Northern Farm Training Institute/Handout

The Northern Farm Training Institute in the Northwest Territories recently received a semi-truck full of 50,000 pounds of seed potatoes from Alberta to distribute throughout the territory as part of an effort to promote food security.

The institute, located in Hay River on the southern tip of Great Slave Lake, had plans to use the potatoes to encourage northerners, including people living in one of the territory’s 13 fly-in communities, to grow their own food.

Jackie Milne, president of the institute, said she tried getting help from the territorial government’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, which is responsible for overseeing federal funding for agriculture. She said she received no formal response.

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So she reached out to the Potato Growers of Alberta, who wrote back the next day telling her that Sunnycrest Farms near Red Deer., Alta., would donate enough seed potatoes for just more than one pound a person throughout the territory, which has a population of about 45,000 people.

Ms. Milne said the pandemic has underscored the need for everyone to take food shortages seriously.

“We need to make sure that the place where we live has the ability to meet our core needs so that we’re not completely dependent on imports,” she said. “Imports should be a supplement, not a dependency.”

Ms. Milne adds that potatoes in particular are great for first-time gardeners and are easy to protect, as well as being one of the highest food-producing vegetables a square foot.

Access to food is already a significant issue in the territory, where 21.7 per cent of households were considered food insecure in 2017-18, the most recent data available. That is the second-highest rate in the country, compared with nearly 12.7 per cent for Canada as a whole.

Ms. Milne said most Northern communities are already at a high risk of food shortages.

“A lot of the food we are still purchasing from our grocery stores are coming out of storage from last year’s harvest. Once we go through that, the shortage of the work force is going to affect what’s available next year.”

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That has been exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly by the territory’s decision to close its boundaries boundaries to non-essential travellers, Ms. Milne said.

“When the crisis began with COVID-19 and our border closed, I knew there would be shortages for us in the Northwest Territories because we already get shortages of the regular grocery food,” Ms. Milne said.

The institute president has volunteers to help distribute the seed potatoes to different communities throughout the territory ⁠– the first batch was sent to Sambaa K’e in the Dehcho Region of the NWT. Other batches have been sent to Yellowknife, the Sahtu and Beaufort Delta Regions and to Fort Simpson, which will be used as a distribution point for communities in that area.

Ms. Milne said most of the seed potatoes in grocery stores in the territory are sold out. Even when they’re not, grocery shoppers easily pay $4 a pound.

It’s a different story at Sunnycrest Farms, where they’re dealing with a surplus of seed potatoes.

Jeff Ekkel, the farm’s owner, said seed potatoes are the only excess crop they have and that the 50,000 pounds given to the NWT was only a small amount. They also distributed more of their excess seed to the cattle feed market.

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“The pandemic has so far decreased the demand for potatoes, and we’re a seed farm, so in turn, it decreases the demand for our seeds,” Mr. Ekkel said.

Joel Holder, director of economic diversification at the Industry, Tourism and Investment Department, said the territory has the Canadian Agricultural Partnership program that provides funding to communities for resources such as seed potatoes, farming equipment and training. He said it requires a formal application.

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, said food shortages can affect the price of food as well as diminish the selection of food, which in turn lends itself to food insecurity – something that’s already an issue in Northern Canada.

“By the time somebody is telling us they don’t have enough money to afford the food they need, they’re invariably also struggling to meet other things that take money, like hydro, rent or mortgage payments,” she said. Mr. Holder said the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment is monitoring the food supply at grocery chains in the territory.

Ms. Milne stated that now is the time to take food shortages seriously and to reconnect with local food systems.

“I’ve noticed that people want to change and live in a more sustainable way, so now is the time to plant it and think about what that looks like,” she said.

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