Thunder Bay

How Whitesand First Nation tackles food insecurity through its community market

Weekly community markets are bringing fresh food to Whitesand First Nation and other First Nations in northwestern Ontario, lowering costs and providing healthier options.

Fresh food comes to some northwestern Ontario communities weekly, lowering costs, giving healthier options

A woman stands in line at Whitesand First Nation's community market eyeing up fresh peppers and broccoli in front of her
A woman stands in line at Whitesand First Nation's community market, one way people in northwestern Ontario are dealing with high food costs. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

For people across Canada and beyond, rising costs and inflation have been hitting them hard.

In northwestern Ontario, higher living costs have meant some First Nations are finding creative solutions to an ongoing and longstanding problem.

Since October, Whitesand First Nation — which is 250 kilometres, or about a three-hour drive, north of Thunder Bay — has been holding a community food market every Wednesday since last October.

Community members in the Ojibway First Nation can access fresh fruits and vegetables, along with other items like bread, at an affordable price — and they're all brought to their community

Angela Nodin, health co-ordinator for Whitesand First Nation, said people there originally heard about such a food market after the neighbouring Ojibway community of Gull Bay First Nation started one. Whitesand then knew they too wanted to get in on it, for good reasons.

Indigenous people living in Canada experience food insecurity — defined as a lack of regular access to safe, nutritious food — at higher rates than non-Indigenous people.

A 2018 national survey by the First Nations Information Governance Centre indicated over half of Indigenous households experience food insecurity. According to research from the University of Toronto, just one in eight Canadian households overall suffers from food insecurity.

A community effort

Whitesand First Nation is one of five locations within Thunder Bay and the region where the Roots Community Food Group, or Roots to Harvest, runs a market.

Roots Community Food Group provides the food while the community sponsors a driver to bring items there weekly.

Getting people to the Whitesand market was slow at first, but it grew and got so popular that it draws lineups of people looking to pick up food items.

"The only time we took a break was during the Christmas holidays, and then it was slow starting back up because they were thinking we weren't going to be consistent. But now…we sell out pretty much every week," said Nodin.

A man and woman put a box of pineapples into the back of a van
A van gets loaded up with fresh fruits and vegetables for Whitesand First Nation's community food market. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Nodin said it's become so popular that they're thinking of purchasing a larger van to be able to stock more fruits and vegetables for the market, and they're expanding by buying bread makers to make their own fresh supply.

She said that each week, the community gets different items to try, allowing community members to expand their food choices. It's also a learning experience, through community kitchens.

When you can't access fruit and vegetables, if you have diabetes or renal issues, those are accentuated because you can't get the food that sort of helps you be healthy.- Erin Beagle, Roots to Harvest executive director

"So if you had something new like zucchini, they would do a recipe," said Nodin. "We look at what's out on the… community market and then when we do community kitchen, we'll try to incorporate that type of food." 

Erin Beagle, executive director of Roots to Harvest, said her organization runs five community food markets in Thunder Bay and the surrounding region, including Whitesand First Nation, to make fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible because they play a pivotal role in health and well-being.

"When you can't access fruit and vegetables, if you have diabetes or renal issues, those are accentuated because you can't get the food that sort of helps you be healthy. Also its [preventive] measures too [as] people are more at risk of diet-related diseases."

Erin Beagle, the executive director of Roots Community Food Group, poses for a photo.
Erin Beagle, executive director of Roots Community Food Group, runs five community markets within Thunder Bay and the region, including in Whitesand First Nation. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Pineshi Gustin, an elder living in Whitesand First Nation, said the local grocery service doesn't offer the produce she and her family need, including for health reasons. 

"We do less processed food eating in our house, so this service here in the community that you see today is great. It offers better food." 

Gustin also said the community market is good for elders and seniors, people with disabilities, low-income households and shoppers without a vehicle.

She looks forward to Wednesdays, knowing she'll get fresh produce for herself and to pick up items for her brother, who can't get to the market.

Helen Kwandebance, a community wellness worker for Whitesand First Nation, said everybody works together to ensure the market is a success, including reducing wait times at the cashier.

Community members from Whitesand First Nation stand in a long line to pay for their items
Community members in Whitesand First Nation stand in line to pay for their items (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Kwandebance said she loves helping out her colleague taking payments, as she gets to greet people and mingle with them. 

The teamwork and partnership between the community and Roots to Harvest is what makes the market work, Kwandebance said, adding that Beagle has come to the community to see Whitesand's efforts, as every market has a different routine.

Kwandebance recalls listening to some women chat in line about a certain type of produce she picked up at the market, and it was half the price of a similar item in a grocery store.

"It was nice to hear the difference of shopping in Thunder Bay because Thunder Bay is our nearest big city, right? It saves them time from travelling to Thunder Bay and one of the other ladies did say it was a lot fresher than as if we were to buy it in Thunder Bay or at our local store."


Jasmine Kabatay is an Anishinaabe journalist from Seine River First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She is based in Thunder Bay and has also written for the Toronto Star, and VICE News.