A woman with a seed packet

COVID-19 Update: Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation grows food, hope and security

A woman holds a seed packet with a sign that says Ahtahkakoop Community Garden behind her
MAY 2020

DOROTHY AHENAKEW, THE FOOD SECURITY COORDINATOR FOR AHTAHKAKOOP CREE NATION, SPOKE WITH US ABOUT CURRENT CHALLENGES.

Communities in Canada and around the world are mobilizing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. First Nations across Canada are pivoting from community activities to maintain physical distancing, and looking at new methods of delivering programming.

We spoke with Dorothy Ahenakew, food security coordinator for Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, on how the global pandemic is impacting the community and what is being done to ensure that community members are safe and have enough fresh and nutritious food.

Like Birch Narrows Dene Nation, Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation has shifted programming to address the needs of the community. Here’s what Dorothy had to tell us about the response to COVID-19 in her Nation.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU LIVED IN AHTAHKAKOOP? DESCRIBE YOUR ROLE OF FOOD SECURITY COORDINATOR?

I’ve lived in Ahtahkakoop for 52 years and raised seven children here. My parents were gardeners and grain farmers who provided us with our own food grown in their garden.

As the food security coordinator, the community looks to me to start and organize programs that would benefit us all while reducing food insecurity. As well, I was chosen by the Nation’s Food Security Committee to lead the Community Garden Project, where community members learn to grow their own food and eat a more traditional diet, all with the main goal of prevention and management of diabetes.

PRIOR TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES YOUR COMMUNITY FACED IN ACCESSING FOOD?

Our biggest challenge is accessing affordable fresh produce at our local convenience store. Many community members are on social assistance, which makes purchasing fresh produce difficult since it’s rather expensive. As well, some community members do not have access to transportation which proves hard to travel to other places to buy groceries. People rely on their friends and family members to take them to nearby towns or cities, but that isn’t possible at this time due to physical distancing.

AS OF EARLY MAY, HOW HAS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IMPACTED YOUR COMMUNITY?

Seedlings in seed pods

Seedlings growing in community member’s houses ready to be planted in the garden tunnel.

Our Chief and council had been planning Ahtahkakoop’s COVID-19 emergency response plan including shutting down school, band offices and other services. Of course physical distancing and safe hygiene practices are put into place. At this time, there are no cases of the virus in the reservation.

Because our community has a large population of people on social assistance or are seniors, there has been an increased demand for food. Also, we’ve had community members who have been laid off from their jobs and are either on E.I. or CERB, which exacerbates their difficulty in accessing food.

It’s been hard for children – numerous children in the community relied on school breakfast and lunch programs for regular, nutritious meals but since all the schools are closed, their teachers are very concerned for their students’ health and wellbeing.

WHAT HAS AHTAHKAKOOP BEEN DOING TO ADDRESS CHANGES IN FOOD ACCESS DUE TO COVID-19?

Community members building and constructing planter boxes

Thanks to CFTC donors, community members in Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation are able to build planter boxes to house seedlings to grow their own produce.

To try to alleviate the immediate and urgent need for food, I helped organized for 300 emergency grocery hampers to be sent to families in the Nation with fresh and nutritious food to help supplement their supply. The Ahtahkakoop Band is buying nonperishable foods, butchering cows and pigs, and purchasing fish from the Northern First Nations to be distributed to community members, as well.

HOW IS CFTC DONOR SUPPORT HELPING RIGHT NOW?

Our Community Garden Project, that was funded in part thanks to Canadian Feed The Children donors, is still gearing up to help provide fresh and nutritious produce to families during the growing season. CFTC donors helped us to purchase seedlings and soil to start this year’s garden. I’ve started some seedlings in my house, as have other community members. The seedlings are small scale for now and are destined to be planted into our community garden tunnel. All the produce that will be grown in the garden tunnel will be distributed to community members. This year, we’ll be growing cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, squash and a variety of flowers.

A woman in the garden tunnel uses a rototiller

Dorothy herself tilling the soil in the garden tunnel, preparing for the seedlings to be planted.

We’re planning to go mass production of vegetables and build a root cellar so people could have access to the vegetables throughout times a year. We will be renting a potato planter seeder so we can mass plant potatoes for the community.

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY CFTC SUPPORTERS CAN HELP RIGHT NOW?

In these uncertain times during this global crisis, there is a definite need for support. The best way donors can help by giving a donation. Donations will be used to purchase food for emergency hampers and provide seedling packages for community members who want to try to grow their own food. In addition, we have our long term plans to build a root cellar to store vegetables all year round and funds would help in making this possible. This would be ideal because we could provide community members with food themselves instead of relying on a grocery store.

DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR CFTC SUPPORTERS?

We are so grateful for your support. Your financial support helps make our community a safer place and helps those in great need. Thank you.

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