When the snow melts in the next few weeks, Terri-Anne Larry’s students will lay traps for rabbits, muskrats and beavers, and learn traditional techniques for preparing and cooking the animals. Next month, they will try fishing for striped bass in the Miramichi.
To deal with rampant food insecurity in her community, Principal Larry runs a school food program that provides breakfast, lunch and snacks to 100 Indigenous students every day at Natoaganeg Mi’kmaq School in New Brunswick. The program, once called Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, Healthy Spirits, was renamed in 2019 to Kelulk Mijipjewey, which means “we eat good food” in Mi’kmaq.
The school is located on the Eel Ground First Nation, a small town of about 545 people near the mouth of the Miramichi River. Poverty is common – 50 per cent of children live in a low-income household, roughly three times higher than the rest of Canada.
Feeding children in schools is one way to address food insecurity, defined as the inability to afford enough quality food. School food programs have been shown to improve academic achievement, attendance, and drop-out rates. And they can teach students about different cultures, traditions, and environmental sustainability.
Indigenous populations in Canada are up to five times more likely to experience food insecurity,which is linked to poor nutrient intake and a higher prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes, according to data from the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study of 92 on-reserve First Nations communities. And half of on-reserve Indigenous children are at risk of going to school hungry.
Students fill the cafeteria at Natoaganeg Mi’kmaq School in New Brunswick.
According to the latest census, there are 1.6 million Indigenous Peoples (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) in Canada, with roughly 300,000 living on reserves. These numbers are projected to grow, with Indigenous youth aged 15 to 24 years reaching roughly three million by 2041.
Despite government efforts such as Nutrition North Canada, which spends more than $100 million a year to subsidize fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, and some meats, the Indigenous communities targeted by this program still experience the highest prevalence of food insecurity in Canada.
Research from the Université de Montréal suggests that using Indigenous languages and sourcing and eating traditional foods can guard against food insecurity. But financial constraints, government regulations on fishing and hunting, and climate change often act as barriers for Indigenous communities.
“A lot of the communities that are really in need are out of sight out of mind.”
“A lot of the communities that are really in need are out of sight out of mind,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair on truth and reconciliation at Lakehead University’s Orillia campus. “They are in remote places where really nobody goes.”
In addition to greater poverty rates, rising food costs, and the lack of access to traditional foods, colonialism and the residential school experience have played major roles in Indigenous Peoples’ food sovereignty.
“Here we have a whole population of people coming out of that experience of starvation who are now fat with hunger,” says Wesley-Esquimaux.
Her mother spent eight years in a residential school and her stepfather spent 12 years. She says the malnutrition and starvation they felt has left them with an unhealthy relationship with food and high rates of food insecurity.
But government efforts to address food insecurity in remote communities have fallen flat. Flying food into remote communities is “senseless” says Wesley-Esquimaux, not to mention prohibitively expensive.
The Natoaganeg school food program started 16 years ago with one Mi’kmaq Elder handing out toast with Cheez Whiz to students. Soon after, funding from Canadian Feed the Children allowed the school to develop a breakfast program and eventually a lunch program.
The school also receives local funding from Big Brothers, Big Sisters that it uses to offer healthy snacks like apples, oranges, carrots, broccoli and yogurt.
But the program isn’t just about providing food to hungry kids. The children learn about Indigenous food culture: Hunting, fishing, and even beekeeping. Each week, the school has Mi’kmaq Monday, where students are encouraged to wear traditional regalia and speak Indigenous languages. On those days, students eat moose in a stew, roast, or as hamburgers using meat donated by the local hunter, who happens to be Larry’s husband.
As part of the Kelulk Mijipjewey program, students learn about Indigenous food culture, including how to hunt and properly skin a moose.
He runs a meat shop at their house across the street from the school and showed students how to properly skin a moose, with plans to teach them how to butcher and prepare the meat next year. One staff member brought in a porcupine to teach the students about quillwork, a staple in Mi’kmaq culture. “They were so comfortable doing it,” says Larry.
Food was used as a weapon in the residential school system. “They were barely fed anything,” says Larry, and teaching and feeding students is an act of healing for Elders and survivors. But there’s still a significant amount of work that must be done, says Wesley-Esquimaux. “It’s more than just, you know, saying I’m sorry.”
Top photo: Smiling faces during lunchtime at Natoaganeg Mi’kmaq School in Eel Ground First Nation.
Photos courtesy of Terri-Anne Larry.