Food Forests: A Space for Growth and Healing

|  Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Food Forests: A Space for Growth and Healing

pencil crayon drawing of strawbrryLocated just 80 kilometers north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is Beardy’s & Okemasis' Cree Nation, a tight-knit community of just over 3,000 band members. This community, like many Indigenous communities across Canada, faces challenges with rising food costs and the loss of traditional knowledge and practices due to the ongoing effects of colonialism. 

However, amidst these challenges shines a beacon of hope and resilience in the form of the Indigenous-led Food Forest Initiative funded by Canadian Feed The Children's family of supporters.

Jennifer Cameron smiling proudly in a pavillion that she and several community members helped build in the food forest

Jennifer Cameron smiling proudly in a pavilion she and several other community members helped build as part of the food forest

Indigenous reclamation through food forests

Jennifer Cameron, a dedicated member of Beardy’s & Okemasis' Cree Nation, serves as the Food Security Coordinator, spearheading efforts to reclaim Indigenous food systems and promote food sovereignty within the community. With a passion for permaculture and horticulture, Jennifer embarked on a journey to establish a food forest, a sustainable ecosystem that mimics the diversity and resilience of natural forests while providing nutritious foods and medicines year after year. 

"In 2019, I proposed the idea of a food forest here in the community. Many people said that would never happen but here we are in the food forest three years later, and it's coming along," Jennifer recounts.

The journey to establish the food forest was not without its challenges but with Jennifer's determination and the support of over 100 community members, the field has transformed into a thriving food forest. 

Audrey Eyahpaise, Elder & Knowledge Keeper, believes the hard work being put into building this food forest will be well worth it. "To me, this is important to our future, to our kids, and to the next generation. We’re in tough times, things are tough. Food is not available that much. One day this is going to be one big garden. You know, it's growing. That's why it's important, as people, to work together."

With over 700 trees planted, including apple, Saskatoon berry, and raspberry varieties, the food forest serves as a living classroom where community members of all ages can reconnect with the land, learn about traditional plants, and gain valuable skills in food preservation and preparation.

"The one thing that I love the most about working in this position is that I get to relate to a lot of different people in different aspects," Jennifer shares. "Relating to kids that don't normally get the attention that they deserve, they get it here and they get to be able to experience new things, do different things."

Youth carrying on traditional ways

a girl in a rainbow tshirt smiles against a background of trees

Summer enjoys land-based, traditional activities with her family. She feels closer to her family, her ancestors, and the land.

Summer, Jennifer's 11-year-old daughter, embodies the spirit of resilience and connection to the land that the food forest represents. When we caught up with her, she shared that she loves practicing traditional methods like hunting and gathering to create delicious land-based meals. “I like to pick lots of Saskatoon berries and just eat them or make jams,” she tells us.

Her true passion, however, lies in hunting, where she excels with a bow and arrow. As a weekly tradition, Summer hunts with her family for rabbits, mainly, and uses them in a variety of dishes like stews. Her talents also extend to her green thumbs, where she has grown fruitful plants like apple trees, and haskap and blueberry bushes. 

Reclaiming Indigenous food systems within communities is the first step to restoring food sovereignty and enhancing food security. Traditional harvesting methods, like the ones Summer practices, help further land-based knowledge and provide nutritious food year-round.

A sense of purpose and connection

group of people walking through a forested trail

Community members from Beardy's and Okemasis' Cree Nation getting out on the land.

The impact of the food forest extends far beyond providing fresh produce. It is a means of healing, growth, and empowerment for their community. "I’ve had a lot of people say that they want a garden now because they can’t afford vegetables anymore," Jennifer reveals.

Audrey reflects on the enduring legacy of residential schools but has hope for the future thanks to the food forest. "We're on our way to break this cycle of intergenerational trauma, and it's a good place to do this, in this kind of environment and out in nature." 

Jennifer also shares that the community has been rocked by tragedy in recent years, with many children and youth being affected by deaths in their families and the loss of Elders. "We've had lots of students come out here to ground themselves, to just listen to it," Jennifer explains. "They spend an hour out here or however long they need. They exchange their positive and negative energies with the soil, and it changed how they were."

Through hands-on experiences in planting and caring for the trees, students are discovering a newfound sense of purpose and connection to their land and culture. By integrating land-based education into the curriculum, Jennifer has witnessed firsthand the transformative power of nature in nurturing resilience and fostering positive behavioral change among students, including those with neurodivergent needs.

Children are not just learning about the land; they are being empowered to become future leaders, stewards of their culture and environment. "Now students love being out here. These were the kids that the school thought of as difficult," Jennifer reflects. There are even students now who are applying to horticultural studies programs in university after their experience in the food forest!  

Audrey shares her hopes for the youth of her community and their re-establishing of tradition

As Summer and her peers continue to learn about the plants in the food forest and how they can help keep their traditions alive, it is evident that in addition to providing sustenance and promoting wellbeing, the food forest is helping to preserve cultural heritage and pass down ancestral knowledge to future generations.

Our ancestors liked picking medicines and hunting. It’s very important to them,” Summer explains. This time on the land is enriching her mind with horticultural knowledge, her body with culturally appropriate and healthy foods, and her spirit with a deeper connection to her land and ancestors.

"There's so much potential and I want to teach that to our younger generations, my family members, that [we can have] a garden, that we have berries out there, medicines, everything. This is everything here. This is life. This is the true meaning of life."
Audrey Eyahpaise, Elder & Knowledge Keeper, Beardy’s & Okemasis’ Cree Nation

Through initiatives like the Food Forest Initiative, Indigenous communities are reclaiming their right to food sovereignty, reclaiming their ancestral lands, and reclaiming their cultural identity. By supporting initiatives that empower Indigenous communities to heal, grow, and thrive on their own terms, we can all play a part in building a more just and equitable future for all. 

You can help more Indigenous communities Heal. Grow. Thrive. Donate today to help us expand from four to 10 food forests by 2030. All donations matched 2X so you can double your impact, but only until June 30!

Original artwork designed by Sarah Cronier, CFTC's Senior Officer, Indigenous Programs & Partnerships.