Increasing food security for Northwest BC Indigenous communities

A community-led social innovation approach combines traditional and contemporary foods and methods

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, food insecurity issues were only exacerbated for Nisga’a members living on Coastal Ts’msyen Territories in northwestern BC, Prince Rupert, and Port Edward communities.

Even before the crisis, there were pressing challenges in addressing food security. For the past three years, the North Coast Innovation Lab, a place-based initiative by Ecotrust Canada, and the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society, a social enterprise that supports members of the Nisga’a Nation living in Prince Rupert, collaborated on a Mitacs-funded project.

“We were recognizing that the food systems in Prince Rupert were not necessarily serving these small communities,” says Alexie Stephens, Ecotrust Canada’s Program Manager for the Skeena Region.

“Especially during the pandemic, we would run out of things all the time in the grocery stores. Shelves were empty, and you didn’t know when fresh produce was going to come in again.”

In an effort to create solutions for Nisga’a members, Mitacs interns engaged in a research project to understand how to put healthy, affordable food on the table, while growing it in a sustainable way.

Why focus on food security?

Ecotrust Canada designed NCIL with a social innovation approach to bring resources and solutions to bear on the community’s complex problems. In the past, the organization worked on projects in downtown revitalization, placemaking, and livability, but it is now focusing its efforts on food-related initiatives.

Food security means that everyone should have financial and physical access at all times to culturally preferred foods that meet their nutritional needs. But according to a survey done by the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society two years ago, one-third of the Nisga’a population is food insecure.

“The results were shocking, with one-third of Nisga’a households reporting that they are not regularly eating three meals a day, with the top two identified barriers being access and affordability,” said Stephens. “This made the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society concerned that they needed to work on food innovation for the membership.”

Creating a traditional and contemporary diet

Having culturally appropriate and preferred food is essential to the community. Mitacs Accelerate intern Carly Checholik, a master’s student in Anthropology at the University of Toronto, worked with the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society in 2020 and researched ways to coordinate all the assets owned by the society to create a “food hub” that could address food insecurity in a holistic way.

Checholik also investigated possible distribution methods for the products grown in the hydroponic greenhouse, prioritizing traditional foods.

“With the Nisga’a Society, we explored what culturally relevant foods were important to members, and we realized that we needed food literacy to go along with food security,” Checholik explained.

She worked on creating culturally relevant activities related to processing seafood and incorporating Nisga’a traditional medicines into contemporary foods. 

Checholik’s project was focused on a collaborative approach with community-led workshops. She asked Nisga’a members what their values were surrounding food security and then conducted a gardening workshop.

In 2019, Morgan Sage, who had the same internship position Checholik had in 2020, taught members how to grow plants in a greenhouse and sell their products. This was a huge success and got people interested in having access to fresh, local foods, but it wasn’t a sustainable business model, hence the move toward the hydroponic units.

Producing more sustainable food

During Carly’s internship, the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society purchased a hydroponic growing system to plant leafy greens and herbs all year round.

As a result, the Nisga’a Society is selling hydroponic-grown products through a food subscription box program. Community members can purchase greens weekly or biweekly and all profits are cycled back into their food security work.

The NCIL wants to make sure that different communities outside of the Nisga’a Nation trade food and increase collaboration to give a fair opportunity to local growers and producers.

“The long-term food security goal with the Nisga’a Society is to increase food security for their membership. The NCIL would like to take that one step further and improve food security for our whole community and their members,” said Stephens.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.

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