COVID-19 Update: Birch Narrows and Turnor Lake come together to tackle food insecurity – how you can help

COVID-19 Update: Birch Narrows and Turnor Lake come together to tackle food insecurity – how you can help

Rebecca and Helene

Rebecca Sylvestre (left) and Hélène Hebert from Turnor Lake Birch Narrows Community Food Centre spoke with us about their current challenges.

APRIL 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on our partner communities in Canada and around the world. For families in Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Dene Nation in northern Saskatchewan, the crisis has been challenging, but the community is finding ways to move forward – and they need your help.

We spoke with our partners Rebecca Sylvestre and Hélène Hebert of the Turnor Lake Birch Narrows Community Food Centre, which usually leads community cooking and nutrition programs, as well as land-based education workshops. Since the lockdown began in March, they have shifted their programming to address the most urgent needs in the community.

We asked Rebecca and Hélène about how the community is managing in face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how Canadian Feed The Children supporters can help. Here’s what they had to say.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic what were the challenges your community faced?

Children planting seeds in classroom garden

Before the pandemic: Hélène leads a gardening activity with children at the local school, thanks to donor support. With programs now cancelled, your support is still helping to feed families.

It costs $300 and a three hour drive to get to the nearest large shopping centre, but how can someone afford that when they are living on $250 every two weeks?

There had to be something else we could do. We did research on how to start a community food centre, and applied for support from CFTC. We were able to do cooking workshops right away with the local school, reaching close to 100% of the children in Turnor Lake.

As of early April, how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your community?

Long line up of cars to get into a parking lot

The long line up of cars to get to the local grocery store. Residents can wait up to two hours to get into the store.

Currently we do not have any positive cases, but we are on lockdown. The road was blocked with one day’s notice, which caused chaos. Everyone is talking about food – with only one local small store, how is it going to feed all of us?  There are long line ups to get to the local store – you can wait for up to two and a half hours to get fruits and vegetables, but then you get none in the end.

What is the most urgent need in the community for children and families during the COVID-19 crisis?

Our most urgent need is having enough fresh and nutritious food for the community. The supply chain has been significantly disrupted. We only have one grocery store in Turnor Lake that is figuring out a new way to restock to meet people’s needs. Our community doesn’t have a second store that you can go to. There are also a number of low-income families who don’t have the option to stock up on groceries. Nearly 40 babies are at risk of running out of formula, which is now not available through the warehouses we can access. Sometimes the roads are closed, so there is limited access for trucks to come in. If our community doesn’t receive a grocery shipment, we have to wait at least a week for another.

How have you responded to this crisis?

A young man holding rabbits he snared

Youths in the community learned how to snare rabbits through CFTC supported land-based education programs. Now, they are using these skills to help provide much needed food to community members.

Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Community Food Centre cancelled all community meals and cooking workshops to maintain physical distancing, but prior to this we had received shipments of food for an event. We distributed this as food boxes to members of the community at home. To keep our sense of connection, we now hold online cooking workshops to teach people what they can do with the food that’s distributed to them.

We even did a Facebook Live session on our Facebook page to teach community members how they can make bread with ingredients they probably already have at home. That spread well beyond Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows!

How is CFTC donor support helping?

Two men holding fish they caught

Fishermen in Birch Narrows can supply fresh fish to Elders and community members thanks to donor support – but more help is needed.

We’ve been able to send hunters, trappers and fishermen out into the land to hunt caribou, trap rabbits and fish to then be distributed to the community. Our hunters were able to bring back four caribou, which provided quite a bit of meat that was packaged and given to Elders and families. In addition, CFTC donors helped us gather produce ahead of time to pack and prepare around 175 food boxes to be distributed to families in need. We also were able to purchase formula for the babies most in need for the upcoming weeks.

What is the best way CFTC supporters can help right now?

The best way that CFTC supporters can help children and families in Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows is with a donation. Donations can help us purchase and distribute healthy foods to the 175 families in our community. Donations can also help us achieve our long-term goal of creating a greenhouse so our community can grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables. A child who knows how to plant a garden is a child that will not go hungry.

Do you have a message for CFTC supporters?

Caribou meat

Freshly harvested caribou was distributed to community members, providing much needed healthy protein in a time when grocery stores are not accessible.

We want to thank all of CFTC’s donors. It’s priceless to have this kind of support. It’s pretty amazing to see that even in a crisis, we are seeing the fruits of our efforts. We had a youth in the community who went out into the bush to go trapping with his family for the first time because of receiving land-based education. Just to see the pride in his eyes, you know he feels valuable to this community. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.


Rebecca Sylvestre is the co-founder, program manager and a board advisor for Turnor Lake and Birch Narrows Community Food Centre. She has lived in Turnor Lake her entire life. Hélène Hebert is the volunteer treasurer of the food centre, which she helped establish along with Rebecca in 2018.