Building healthy habits from the ground up

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Building healthy habits from the ground up
“Learning from the Elders on how they ate when they were kids versus how we eat now is completely different”Jennifer, a member of Beardy’s & Okemasis’ Cree Nation

Jennifer, a member of Beardy’s & Okemasis’ Cree Nation in Treaty 6 territory, is a leading voice for local food systems transformation in this tightknit community of more than 3,000, located on resource-rich farmlands that stretch from central to southeastern Saskatchewan.

“I grew up in the garden, being in the forest and being a part of the land with my aunts and my uncles and my family. We grew up knowing the bush,” she said. So, she was a natural choice to take on the role of food security coordinator in 2019.

“We initially had 30 gardens and I felt that wasn’t enough,” Jennifer said. Although that number had expanded to 162 backyard family gardens by 2020, Jennifer was excited to do more, including building a community garden. “Having a backyard garden is for your family whereas a community garden is for all of us. Everybody has to put into it and everybody can take away. I also wanted to get the food forest going,” she said.


Food forests are human-planned, natural spaces that provide food and environmental benefits to local communities. Based on permaculture design, they are modeled on the layout, diversity, and resilience of natural woodland ecosystems using layers of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals that work together to provide food and greenspace for humans and a habitat for insects and wild animals. A food forest – once established – is self-sustaining, unlike a traditional farm. This means it is low-maintenance and can feed families for generations while helping Indigenous communities re-establish food sovereignty.

Beardy’s & Okemasis’ Cree Nation joined neighbouring Nations in Saskatchewan and Alberta in the CFTC-supported Food Forest Initiative in 2019. This first four-Nation hub, which started in Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in 2017, is envisioned to connect these communities for knowledge sharing and to help fulfill the range of social and economic benefits that stem from this kind of local food systems development.


Jennifer emphasizes the many teachings offered by community gardens and food forests. She conducts gardening skills trainings with her fellow community members, who can then take home what they are learning and teach others. “I teach people companion planting [and] how to prune a tomato tree or diagnose illnesses in fruit and vegetable trees or plants. People who don’t know how to harvest certain vegetables have that opportunity to learn,” Jennifer said.

Plotting out the community garden

Plotting out the community garden

With the food forest, people will be able to gain new skills – some that Jennifer is just learning herself, like proper ways to prune a tree and other elements of permaculture design.

“[The food forest will] teach people how to maintain a site throughout the year to become self-sustaining,” Jennifer said, adding that a food forest provides benefits beyond just providing fresh fruits and vegetables – although that is important. “It is a place to get food. But beyond that is the mental health aspect, just being outside and being around the plants can change a whole attitude. It gives off the happy hormone—go outside for a while and you’ll feel it,” she said.

Food forests can also create jobs, revitalize local ecosystems, and mitigate the effects of climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices. But for Jennifer, what’s top of mind are the health benefits offered by a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and traditional food.


Having experienced some health issues of her own, Jennifer has first-hand knowledge of how food plays a role in overall wellness. She has added bison meat and wild game to her family’s diet. Traditional foods, which have long provided high-quality nutrients to Indigenous Peoples, are important ways to reconnect people today with the cultural practices and food traditions that have served them and their environments so well for millennia.

Community berry-picking at Beardy's & Okemasis

Community berry-picking at Beardy’s & Okemasis

“Learning from the Elders on how they ate when they were kids versus how we eat now is completely different,” Jennifer said. “Eighty years ago, there were no fast-food chains … now they’re predominant [everywhere]. Eating healthy isn’t really easy to do because everything is fast food. That has been my biggest learning so far, on how people eat. To be able to teach them different ways to eat has been the biggest learning curve so far.”

Land-based education and following the chain from where food comes from to how it can be prepared and preserved is another important element in Beardy’s & Okemasis’ food strategy. “We have berry-picking groups where we go out into the forest or into other locations in the community to pick berries. [Afterwards] I will teach how to make jam or jelly, preserving [fruit] in jars so they have a longer shelf life, and being able to seed-save from those berries we’ve picked,” she said.


The plans around food growing, gathering, and preparing have blossomed under Jennifer’s careful tending, and have included sessions soliciting community members’ ideas about what they would like to see in the future. “We try to include as many people as possible. It’s quite interesting and the program has been exploding more and more each year,” she said.

Jennifer conducts cooking classes based on the fresh produce from peoples’ gardens, tailoring them to community members’ preferences and needs. She’s introduced inventive ways to boost nutrition knowledge and healthy eating, including the Smoothie Bike, which combines cooking instruction with physical activity by using a bicycle to generate energy for a blender.

This is not to say that the change has been entirely smooth in the community. Jennifer described that when they first introduced a community food share program with locally-hunted bison, many people weren’t accustomed to its richness. It caused digestive issues for some and others felt it tasted too gamey. “The thing is that traditional food is a super food; it’s a healthier food. Buffalo meat is the top of all meat. Eating that gamey meat is actually more beneficial to the body,” said Jennifer.

There is strong research that backs this up. The 2019 First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study conducted by the University of Ottawa, the Université of Montréal and the Assembly of First Nations, found that “traditional food has multiple core values for First Nations. These include cultural, spiritual and traditional values, along with enhanced nutrition and health, food security, ways of knowing and an ongoing connection to land and water. …Traditional food is of superior nutritional quality, and its inclusion significantly improves diet quality.”

Jennifer has learned and now promotes the health benefits of traditional foods and dietary diversity. “It’s critical for our people because many of our communities are suffering with diabetes, kidney problems, heart problems. Just by changing your diet and your lifestyle you can [better manage diabetes]. Long-term studies have shown that changing your diet, eating healthier, changing how you relate to the land can change the chemistry in your body so that you’re able to get over illnesses faster.”


Not only does wild game and locally-grown produce make high-quality nutrition more accessible to the community and increase dietary diversity, it also helps alleviate rising food costs. “I’ve had a lot of people say that they want a garden now because they can’t afford vegetables any more. Community members ask me about different ways to garden: indoor, outdoor, hydroponics, aquaponics,” Jennifer said. “Knowing that they can grow their own lettuce indoors during the winter or start their own cold storage so they have a continuous supply is a real eye opener for people,” adding that it helps defray the always-rising costs of food purchased in supermarkets as well as their questionable nutritional value.

Jennifer’s enthusiasm for spreading the word about the vast amount of food offered freely by Mother Earth is infectious: “Eighty per cent of weeds aren’t weeds at all, we can throw them into a salad. Milk thistle in the garden, you can eat the leaves. The purple flower off a milk thistle can be used in a tea. I had someone say, where do you find wild liquorice? Have you ever come across hitchhikers, the little things that get stuck to your clothes? Well, that’s wild liquorice. You dig up the roots and you mush it up and you get the liquorice flavour from that. Being able to show people, those little seeds you planted, this is what has become of them. This is what we can do with them,” Jennifer said gives her great joy.


Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer’s enthusiasm is inspiring significant change. “We have more people now willing to try a different style of eating. There are so many different opportunities to learn and teach and be able to expand the minds of people that wouldn’t normally think that you can do this,” she said.

The Food Forest Initiative’s promise of creating cross-community connections and learnings is coming to life. “We have a possible trade agreement with Muskeg. They have 130 apple trees and that’s more apples than they need. What grows around here is berries, so I would like to [offer] berries. I believe we’re working on another trade agreement with Ahtahkakoop [also a food forest member] and there’s a community up north that has wild rice…so we can have wild rice coming into the community for free while they get berries. Half the berries we grow here they don’t have up north because of the different climates,” Jennifer explained.

On the short-term horizon for Beardy’s and Okemasis’ is an aviary. “We need pollinators. I want to teach ten people to take care of the bees for the food forest so we can have a supply of honey, instead of using [refined, store-bought] sugar,” Jennifer added. The long-term vision? “Becoming food sovereign,” Jennifer said emphatically, leaving no doubt that she and her community are well on the way to making that vision a reality.