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Northern Manitoba can be cold in September, but perfect fall weather came together with incredible hospitality for a unique and valuable learning opportunity for a group of funders, northern community members, and Tides Canada staff. The “learning trip” gave participants an opportunity to visit communities with projects supported through the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Fund at Tides Canada. The group travelled to Leaf Rapids and O-Pion-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, two communities in the Northern boreal forest of Manitoba. The goal of the learning trip was to improve the understanding of the food challenges facing these communities and to explore opportunities for further collaborative support.

Brian Trewin of Grow North talking about the strawberries

Brian Trewin of Grow North talking about the strawberries.

In Leaf Rapids, the group got their hands dirty helping to plant ‘Music’ garlic, and harvest and measure the potato crop in the Churchill River Nursery, the outdoor learning centre of a local project called Grow North. From Brian Trewin, a 19-year-old youth lead-hand, the group learned how the nursery strawberry runners were snipped and developed to have a ‘northern hardiness’ and then distributed to other communities by the Grow North youth outreach team. Each year, Grow North shares thousands of strawberry plants and other vegetable seeds with neighbouring communities in an effort to improve food access and health. In a community where four litres of milk can cost more than $20.00 and fresh vegetables are expensive and sporadically available, the Grow North program is highly valued by local people. Local master horticulturalist and educator, Chuck Stensgard, said, “It looks like we are growing plants, but we are really trying to grow strong, healthy youth. The youth are our future.”

In ‘building the skills’ Chief Baker teaches trip participant Andi Sharma how to filet a fish

In ‘building the skills’ Chief Baker teaches trip participant Andi Sharma how to filet a fish.

In the nearby community of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (also known as South Indian Lake), the group was treated to an amazing feast of local fish, moose prepared three ways, berries, delicious forest herbs, and local vegetables. Over 100 people joined the event and shared stories of their journey to reclaim food traditions and community health. The Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Fund supports a local program called Ithinto Mechisowin (food from the land) and features activities such as wild harvesting, gardening, re-skilling youth, and a weekly sharing of food with anyone in the community who needs it. Each week, more than 200 people receive fish, berries, vegetables, and wild meat from the Ithinto Mechisowin food centre.

In these two northern Manitoba communities, food is being used as a tool to build strong youth and families and create employment while addressing the serious health conditions that result from poor nutrition. In Leaf Rapids and O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, type 2 diabetes affects more than half of the adult population and many of the young people. The trip participants were heartened to learn that both the Grow North and Ithinto Mechisowin projects will be expanded to benefit more community members. The positive and welcome news was tempered only by the cautious words of Chief Chris Baker of the O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, “There is still a long way to go.”

The Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Fund was created to help Northern Manitoba communities design local solution-oriented projects that address regional issues of poverty, food insecurity, and related health issues. The Fund is administered by Tides Canada and is supported by a funding collaborative comprising various charitable, government, and individual partners and advisors. In 2014 Tides Canada made grants to 13 community projects in 11 northern Manitoba communities. Projects included boreal horticulture, northern beekeeping, community chicken coops, community greenhouses, and traditional food programs reconnecting people with country foods.

To learn more about the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Fund, or to support Tides Canada’s work in building sustainable food systems, please contact Julie Price.