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Students for Canada’s North: The Wapekeka Gardening, Nutrition, and Wellness Project

Northern rural Indigenous communities in Canada are facing many challenges getting regular access to nutritious foods, primarily due to the high cost of market food, restricted availability of nutritious foods, and lack of government support for nutritious food programs. The consequences of food insecurity in this context are expressed in high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and childhood obesity. In response to this health crisis, communities are seeking alternative solutions that rebuild local food capacity, such as gardening and greenhouse initiatives. Important first steps have been taken in developing local food programs, but the extent to which these projects are addressing northern food insecurity is yet to be determined. For example, how much food is being produced as a result of these initiatives? Are the food initiatives sustainable? Are there other benefits to local food initiatives, such as economic development?

With funding from the Global Engagement Centre from the University of Ottawa, student Heather Thompson and professor Michael Robidoux implemented a gardening, nutrition, and wellness project in the Wapekeka First Nation in northwestern, Ontario by partnering with community leadership and the Reverend Eleazar Winter Memorial School. Researchers worked with local youth and volunteers building a community greenhouse to help improve local food capacity, and visited the school regularly to lead gardening and nutrition workshops. The project had two main objectives: increase nutritional and physical literacy skills; and work with community members to increase local food initiatives.

Despite widespread and multidimensional community hardships, there was considerable community support and buy-in to the greenhouse. While the project did not produce enough food to impact the community in terms of addressing food insecurity, the positive community responses gave hope for future development, and provided important insights for those seeking to initiate similar gardening or greenhouse initiatives in northern Indigenous communities.

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