Improving Health in First Nations by Addressing Food Insecurity

Understanding Our Food Systems Project Builds Food Sovereignty at Community Level


Food security is a known social determinant of health. However, food insecurity is a real issue for many First Nations in Northern Ontario according to the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy and others. Systemic challenges due in large part to the ongoing effects of colonialism create a difficult-to-break cycle of poor access to fresh foods leading to poor diet and ultimately poorer health outcomes.

An innovative project involving several organizations in northwestern Ontario is trying to overcome these challenges. The Understanding Our Food Systems project set out to devise a system of food sovereignty that is self-sustaining and that allows each First Nation to determine and develop its own food security plans.

“It’s a community action program,” said Jessica McLaughlin. Among other things, McLaughlin is a consultant with Collective Future Consulting, sits on the executive committee of Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy, and is a member of the Long Lake #58 First Nation. “What we were hired to do is build food sovereignty and food security at the community level.”

Phase one of the program began last March when the team visited 14 First Nations along Highways 11 and 17. “We found out what communities were doing and what they were interested in expanding on,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t determine what communities see as possible. They tell us, and then we support them in that work.”

The project pulled together workshops based on feedback. For example, McLaughlin said, they facilitated workshops on how to build step gardens and a greenhouse so communities could grow some of their own food.

Charles Levkoe, a professor at Lakehead University and the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems, is also part of the project providing expertise and insights into food security. He said that the First Nations have been very receptive and see the benefit of long-term food security.

“When we talk about food sovereignty, everyone is, ‘Yes! This is exactly what we need!’” Levkoe said.

Levkoe added that the networks and partnerships now developing hold the real value of this program. One of the more formalized networks is the Indigenous Circle, a group of 22 Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations which aims “to reduce Indigenous food insecurity, increase food self-determination and establish meaningful relationships with the settler population through food.”

“Building those connections is the longer term vision. It’s not just about getting food there tomorrow. We are going to get some food their tomorrow, but with this vision and decision-making power for them to go out and do stuff without us,” Levkoe said.

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit (TBDHU) is part of the Indigenous Circle and one of the organizations that helps meet immediate need for food. Vincent Ng, a public health nutritionist at TBDHU, said that long-term food security is vital to good public health.

“There are certainly immediate needs that are key, but if health is about systems that need to function well under social determinants of health, then we need to be doing something in that area as well,” Ng said.

Funding for the project comes from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care through the Northern Fruit and Vegetable Program (NFVP), which provides immediate access to fresh produce to 14,000 children in 87 schools throughout northwestern Ontario including 17 schools in First Nations. Rachel Globensky, NFVP program coordinator, sees firsthand how important a long-term program like the Understanding Our Food Systems project can be.

“NFVP funding helps increase food sovereignty and access and affordability, and (funds) different projects that are community-led,” Globensky said.

There isn’t a timeline or blueprint on how to build such a food security system due to the bottom-up nature and the layers of complexity of this unique project.

“That happens fragmentally,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not like, bang, we have a solution. It’s years and years and years of work.”

However, that raises the issue of sustainable funding over the course of the project. Like many social projects, it is always at threat of losing funding even though the long-term effects of improved health outcomes will reduce overall costs to the health systems. Loss of funding would result in many aspects of the program being cut back, but the expertise and support would remain, Levkoe said.

“Once this money is done, we hope to have more, we hope to do more work,” Levkoe said. “But if we don’t, we’re still here and we’re committed to working with these communities (to realize) their bigger visions.”

That will continue to have a positive impact on health of people living in First Nations.

“The health of individuals will only increase because you are doing these community-based projects, you’re allowing communities to have autonomy to determine what they want, you’re helping build planning skills, and that all leads to health,” McLaughlin said.

Filed in: First Nations, News

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