Partnering with mothers highlights culturally significant pathways to reduce hunger in First Nation families

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Partnering with mothers highlights culturally significant pathways to reduce hunger in First Nation families

Indigenous families in Canada disproportionately lack access to affordable and nutritious food. An eight-year study interviews First Nation mothers in and around London, Ontario to highlight the unique social, cultural, and historical challenges that Indigenous families face.     

Richmond, Chantelle, et al. “Supporting food security for Indigenous families through the restoration of Indigenous foodways. Canadian Geographer 65.1 (2021): 97–109. DOI: 10.1111/cag.12677 

Much of Indigenous peoples health and well-being is shaped by their relationship with the environment. This relationship is damaged by the loss of cultural knowledge and traditional foodways. Food security, or the reliable access to affordable, nutritious food, is a major concern in Canada. One family out of eight, including 27 percent of Indigenous Canadians, is food insecure. Food security interventions often focus on food costs and access, without examining the cultural value of Indigenous foodways. Applying a critical lens to food research and partnering with First Nations Canadians may help address some of the unique food security concerns of Indigenous families. 


A team of researchers, led by Dr. Chantelle Richmond of Western University, interviewed 25 First Nation mothers in an eight-year study on Indigenous food security. Appropriately, these interviews were designed and held over meals. Interviewers intentionally asked open-ended questions to spark honest and thoughtful answers. First Nation mothers describe the challenges in achieving food security and general well-being. In addition to universal challenges of income, childcare, and transportation, Indigenous mothers worry about losing traditional foodways. 


Traditional foodways are more than just a healthy and natural food source. They contain culturally important practices that support social systems. Indigenous foodways transfer knowledge and skills for processing, preparing, and sharing food between households. They strengthen cultural identities and build a sense of belonging within the community. Through traditional foodways, people learn how to “live in a good way”, as the interviewed mothers say, by practicing cultural values of support, sharing, reciprocity, sustainability, and respect for the earth and its resources. These values are critical for Indigenous food security, health, and well-being.  


The mothers believe that ongoing colonization and loss of generational knowledge damages traditional foodways. Several generations of Indigenous children were forced into residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their language and practice their cultural traditions. Survivors of this forced assimilation were largely unable or unwilling to transfer knowledge to their children, breaking the transmission of traditional knowledge. Industrial developments and waste placement near Indigenous communities also raise important concerns over the safety of traditional foods. Nearby landfills inhibit First Nations families’ ability to hunt or gather subsistence foods due to the risk of contamination. In this way, environmental protections fail to protect Indigenous communities’ inherent right to food. This lack of protection is a form of environmental racism. 


To address food security in Indigenous families, researchers must work with Indigenous people to understand the connections between community members, life and the land. The First Nation mothers who were interviewed suggested community-based social programming to restore cultural knowledge and Indigenous foodways. For example, elders can teach the next generation traditional food practices in a land-based program to promote social bonding. While events like this may already exist in small communities, they could be improved by greater frequency and staffing. 


By intentionally building honest connections and working with the community, Dr. Richmond and her team were able to identify unique strategies for addressing food security for First Nations families. Their research demonstrates that it’s not enough to address general food security issues. Rather, researchers must seek culturally appropriate ways to support traditional foodways and strengthen community bonds. As we look to improve food security broadly, it is important to work with communities to identify and address their specific needs. 


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