How the pandemic brought a N.B. First Nation together to tackle food insecurity
'When we're all one, we can fight the battles that we need to fight together,' says Shalyn Ward
The COVID-19 pandemic has slashed millions of jobs, and with it, many Canadians' ability to put enough food on the table. But in one New Brunswick First Nation, where access to food has been an issue for years, a local food centre is bringing community members together and helping them build resilience.
"Sharing food is not only sharing food. You're making connections, you're coming in, you're sitting down, you're talking to elders," says Shalyn Ward, cultural co-ordinator at the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre in Eel Ground First Nation.
"And making those connections makes us all one, right? So when we're all one, we can fight the battles that we need to fight together — not just alone."
Eel Ground First Nation is a Mi'kmaw community on the shores of the Miramichi River in northern New Brunswick.
Although it has a population of less than 1,000 people, a 2017 study from the University of Ottawa found that about 40 per cent of residents in the community experienced food insecurity. That's compared to 8.8 per cent of Canadian households that were food insecure in 2017-18.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. River Ward, a volunteer at the food centre, said the number of visitors to the organization's food bank jumped from about 30 or 40 to 110 last March, although that number has since started to level out.
Providing healthy options
Food insecurity is the inability to access enough food, or food that is nutritious, because of financial reasons or other factors. Statistics Canada says it contributes to poorer physical and mental health.
According to the University of Ottawa study, the high cost of food in Eel Ground First Nation is likely a contributing factor to food insecurity in the community. At the time of the study, researchers found that it cost about $14 more per week to feed a family there than it did in Moncton.
That's where the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre comes in.
"It's not just your typical canned food [or] cereal," Shalyn told The Current's Matt Galloway about what the centre provides.
"We have fresh produce. We have harvested moose meat from local hunters. We have lots and lots of options of good, healthy food."
Offering traditional food is also an important aspect of the work the food centre does, because it connects people to their ancestors, said Shalyn.
A hundred years ago, like, my great-great-great-grandmother could have been sitting here eating fiddleheads, not Kraft Dinner.- Shalyn Ward
"A hundred years ago, like, my great-great-great-grandmother could have been sitting here eating fiddleheads, not Kraft Dinner, you know? Like this was an everyday thing," she said.
Besides traditional food, the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre also offers cultural programs, teaches people tips for growing their own food, and runs a community garden — food from which is harvested for the food bank.
Through Zoom, young people can also get cooking lessons from a local chef, and learn how to find ingredients locally or on the land.
"This is the way we used to live every single day, and now we're putting it into our everyday lives now," Shalyn said. "We're just going back to where we came from."
River said it's all about building confidence and helping people provide for themselves.
"Some people are insecure at the grocery store," he explained. "So with these cooking classes, we're able to share these healthy meals, and also share these [grocery] lists and also like [the] location of where everything is at the supermarket."
Shifting to food delivery
Since the pandemic struck, the food centre has also had to adapt.
Before the health crisis, anywhere from 60 to 80 people would show up in the evenings for drop-in meals.
Now, River and fellow volunteer Tammy Richardson are delivering dozens of meals directly to their neighbours' doorsteps.
"We wanted to make sure our elders were safe and well-fed," said River. "These meals save them a lot of trips to the grocery store, because at the beginning, with so much uncertainty, you know, a lot of them were scared to go [shopping]."
Those same elders also took care of River and other kids when he was growing up, he said. They checked in on children, made sure they were fed, and passed down wisdom and advice.
"It was really a community effort," River said. "It was really nice being able to give back to those who've given to us so much."
Eel Ground First Nation Chief George Ginnish said it's been a challenge to deal with food insecurity in his community.
But he believes part of the solution is acknowledging those hurdles, and supporting one another.
"We've got a lot of good people that are always willing to go beyond and help," he said.
"That's one thing about our communities is that, you know, we do work hard and work to look after each other."
That sense of togetherness is exactly what gives Richardson, River and Shalyn hope.
"I see youth helping each other, helping their parents, helping community members. Like, I'm just so thankful for my community," said Shalyn.
"With COVID, we just … amped up our game, and we're pushing through."
Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Ben Jamieson.
This story is part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next. Read more of those stories below.