How giant vegetables from Leamington are helping Indigenous communities in need

Three Indigenous communities in northern Ontario picked up close to 40,000 pounds of donated food that was shipped free of charge to their airports Friday as part of CBC's Sounds of the Seasons.

People living in Marten Falls say they're having trouble feeding everyone in their community

Lance Baxter grabs a bag of carrots out of a North Star Air cargo plane on Friday in Marten Falls. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

A 22 kilogram bag of carrots from Leamington, Ont. travelled more than 1,000 kilometres by road and another 500 kilometres by air before it landed in Lance Baxter's arms.

The bulky bag was part of a food shipment that would usually cost thousands of dollars to get to Marten Falls First Nation, a remote northern Ontario community where about 400 people were in need of fresh food.

"My community is in crisis right now" said Baxter, after unloading skids of food from a North Star Air cargo plane Friday. 

He explained the local store has been running low on food and the community has been rallying for weeks to try and keep people fed.

"This is going to be awesome — especially for the kids."

Size matters

Marilyn Wenjak couldn't believe the size of the carrots inside of the bags donated to her community during CBC Thunder Bay's annual Sounds of the Season food drive. 

"We don't see carrots, we don't have a farm," Wenjak explained, adding people rarely have their own garden on the reserve.

Those carrots — along with sweet potatoes, onions and dry soup mix — started their journey north after being saved from the waste bin. 

Farmers from southwestern Ontario who can't sell produce to their suppliers because the food is too big for a processor or the colouring is a little off, will often turn it into organic waste. 

But sometimes those castoffs are donated to a place like the Gleaners.

Volunteers making 'miracles'

Tina Quiring starts to tear up when she thinks about the work being doing at the Southwestern Ontario Gleaners chapter in Leamington. 

"What we do here gives life to many people," said Quiring, chair of the non-profit organization. 

Meet some of the people behind the Southwestern Ontario Gleaners in Leamington. 1:21

Quiring isn't just proud of the work her volunteers do. She's also aware of the potential impact a well-funded Gleaners chapter could have. 

Most of the costs associated with the load of 250,000 servings of food delivered Friday went to cover transportation.

Northern challenges

The people living in the First Nation also struggle with the cost of bringing food to their remote, fly-in community. 

"It's a dollar-and-a-half to bring in a pound," said Wenjek, who called this year's shipment of donated food a "big Christmas saving."

A vehicle drives off the airstrip after being loaded with donations. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Marten Falls First Nation is accessible by an ice road in the winter, but the length of time when it's safe to drive on has been shrinking each year. This year, people expect it to be solid enough to cross in February, but it will likely be too warm to drive over come March.

North Star Air, KBM Resources Group, Wasaya and Perimiter Aviation picked up the tab for transportation this year, donating fuel and airplanes to deliver 40,000 pounds of food to eight northern communities. 

New farm, same problem

The roughly 1,500 people who live in Eabametoong were in for a treat on Friday when about 500 pounds of turkey were dropped off at their airport. 

"It's difficult to get some of that stuff," said council member Harry Papah, describing shipping costs as "extremely high" for his community, too.

Councillor Harry Papah stands beside the cargo plane full of food. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

He added Eabametoong recently started a new project to try and fight back against increasing food costs: they're building a farm.

"We did taste some good potatoes this year," said Papah, adding that they're also trying to grow strawberries and tomatoes.

He said the first season went well, but the summer is so hot they need a sprinkler system to keep the seeds growing and the only way to ship one in is over the road.

Help for the holiday 

The timing couldn't have been better for a load of fresh food and non-perishable items to arrive in Neskantaga, according to members of the community which numbers about 500.

"It helps families that are in need," said council member William Moonias, who drove out to the airport to meet the cargo plane full of food.

My community is in crisis right now,- Lance Baxter, Marten Falls First Nation

His community faces a similar struggle with transportation costs.

"Getting stuff up here is, you're looking at almost double price of everything," he said, gesturing at the boxes full of food. "It helps the family that needs help."

Marilyn Waswa agreed, adding that it's also difficult to bring fresh vegetables to northern communities. 

"It's important," said Waswa, just before driving off with a skid to split between members of the First Nation. 

Hungry for more

Back in Leamington, Quiring can only think of how much more her already generous organization could do. 

"My hope and prayer is that what we do here will be appreciated to the point where just an army of people will stand up and say 'Look at what's happening in Leamington!" she said.

"It is only the miracle of people working together that can make a huge difference in this community and around the world," Quring added. "The work that we do here can be felt around the world."

In Martin Falls they're already starting to feel the effects. 

"May God bless them and keep them safe in the holidays — I'm thankful for this," said Baxter.