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Addressing food insecurity in northern communities

March 24, 2015 — 

On March 18 the Manitoba government announced an investment to help ensure the success of a local-food social enterprise operating in Garden Hill First Nation.

This is a partnership project of Shirley Thompson, associate professor in the Natural Resources Institute at the U of M. Many Indigenous communities in the north prairies, the Auditor General of Canada and others have noted, lack adequate infrastructure and food production and distribution facilities. Addressing this issue has been a focus of Thompson’s research.

“Food-related community economic development (CED) is making a difference in northern communities where food insecurity rates are very high at 75% (n=534),” Thompson and her co-authors wrote in a 2012 study. “People in northern Manitoba reported in interviews that hunting, fishing, berry-picking and gardening made them self-sufficient, in the recent past (25 to 50 years ago), but now many children and adults cannot afford to eat healthy. Presently many financial and regulatory barriers to country foods exist, which severely curtails food sovereignty and sustainable livelihood, while increasing food insecurity.”

Thompson and her colleagues found Garden Hill First Nations had one of the highest rates of food insecurity. This provincial government investment into local food economic development is welcome.

“This initiative for Garden Hill is quickly becoming a local success story,” Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said.  “Investing in community-based strategies to expand local production of healthy foods has proven to be a more sustainable model with stronger local economic benefits including jobs.  Competing with northern retailers will also bring the cost of healthy foods down, leading to better outcomes and freeing up household budgets.”

This food-based social enterprise, called Meechim Inc. (which means food in Ojibway-Cree), endeavours to provide sufficient calories, protein and nutrients for a large segment of the local population of 2,650.  As this remote fly-in community does not have an all-weather road,  a tractor, greenhouse and building materials for chicken tractors were sent up on the winter road, which recently closed .  Five to nine youth internships and employment training food-based community development programs will train and cultivate jobs in Garden Hill First Nation where there is 76% unemployment. Along with other students and the local farm manager, Kurtis Ulrich well be assisting with food-based training programs for youth and help to design the farm.  Graduate student, Malay Das, who has a veterinarian background, will assist in the raising of the 999 broiler chickens to explore what local inputs (fishmeal, grazing, compost) will yield the healthiest, heftiest,  finger-licking good chickens. As well, graduate students, Tosan Okorosobo and Ahmed  Oyegunle, are experimenting to develop a healthy soil by including peat, fish, wood chips, hugelkulture, compost and other local materials to compare productivity in experimental plots and develop process to improve the farm soil at the same time.  Mohammad Rony is helping with the marketing of value-added products including the commercial fish from this pristine lake.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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