Garden Hill First Nation is replacing chips and pop with trail mix and water at its arena thanks to a new farm installed by a not-for-profit group earlier this year.

"We were offering pop, Coke and Pepsi and orange cans and french fries, candies — whatever you see at the arena — hotdogs," said Mark Barkman, the KEC Arena manager.

But now, those items will be gone thanks to AKI Energy, a non-profit group that works with First Nations to help them start businesses.

Several people with the group visited Garden Hill First Nation last year, and they were struck by how prevalent diabetes was in the small community.

"We went to Garden Hill to see what would work there in terms of some of the geothermal and some of the solar-thermal options that we provide, and we could just see the diabetes problem," said AKI Energy social enterprise developer Shaun Loney. "Clearly energy was not the priority. Changing the food system was so we began to attack that right away."

Loney said there are about 500 people in the 5,000-person reserve who have diabetes. 

So the group set to work figuring out a way to get healthier, more affordable food options for the community.

By May of this year, they had secured $300,000 in funding for a chicken farm, and seeds were in the ground to grow fruits and vegetables.

Soon after, they established Meechim Market with food grown at the farm and were able to sell the food at much lower prices than the community's only other option for groceries: The Northern Store.

The next step was taking the strategy to the community's youngest members, Loney said.

They approached the chief and asked if they could replace unhealthy options like candy and pop with locally-grown, healthier options as a learning tool for young kids.

"Right now, there's basically chips and pop so we're going to eliminate that completely, and we're going to replace that with things like trail mix, juice and water," he said. "We're also going to have chicken soup made from chickens from the [local] farm."

Loney said the chief and council were reluctant at first, "just because the idea was new," but they got on board quickly.

"As for myself, I'm diabetic. I know that there are a lot of people in Garden Hill with diabetes, and those people asked me, would I think about it? And I said, 'You know, this is a good idea for Garden Hill First Nation to sell healthy foods,'" said Barkman. "It was a good thought."

Loney said they are most excited for visitors to see the impact and take the ideas back home.

"We're pretty excited about that because there will be people coming from other First Nations for hockey tournaments and they'll see what Garden Hill is offering out of their canteen and we think there'll be a lot of buy in," he said.

Barkman is anticipating a dip in sales at first, but Loney is hopeful people will embrace the change quickly.

"Every single family in that area is impacted by diabetes in a very sad and significant way, so we think people will buy into the concept quite quickly," he said.

Loney said they hope to continue similar work at other First Nations, with Garden Hill serving as an example of what funding long-term solutions can do for a community.

But, he said, current legislation makes that difficult. Under current legislation, the federal government will help subsidize food flown into the community (such as frozen chicken breasts) but won't provide subsidies for a farm to produce those chickens directly in the community. 

He's hoping programs like Garden Hill's might eventually have an impact on changing that legislation.