Nearly a decade ago, the peopleof the Alexander First Nation, aCree community in central Alberta,grew concerned about their youngpeople. Obesity rates were rising andchildren seemed less active than thegeneration before.
“We felt an urgency to see howhealthy our kids were,” says CoryArcand, principal of the community’sschool, the Kipohtakaw EducationCentre.
They also wanted to find ways toimprove children’s health.
The nation chose to work withDr. Noreen Willows, an AlbertaInnovates – Health Solutions (AIHS)
researcher at the University ofAlberta specializing in nutrition. Inthe past decade, they’ve focused onidentifying and removing barriers tohealthy eating.
“We really are in a partnershipwhere we co-research and developstrategies,” Willows says.
Willows is one of a growingnumber of researchers collaboratingwith indigenous communities onhealth research projects. In thepast, First Nations communitieshad to contend with helicopterresearch—outsiders who flew in,gathered information and flewaway without helping thecommunity. Now, researchers areworking with communities onhealth issues important to them,sharing the information andfinding solutions.
At the Alexander First Nation,
much of Willows’ work is on
food insecurity, the inability of
a household to buy healthy food
because of a lack of money. “In
general, First Nations communities
have lower family incomes than other
Albertans,” she explains. As in many
other rural communities, healthy
foods such as fruits and vegetables
are more expensive than in cities.
“It’s costly to be healthy, especiallywhen there’s disparity in income,”Arcand says.
The community decided early thatmuch of the research would be atthe school, a community hub. Overthe past few years, students havetaken part in many projects. They’veworn pedometers to track their dailysteps and taken part in a hot lunchprogram that sometimes includeswild game from traditional hunts.
Moose meat pizza is popular, Arcandsays.
Students have also grown fruitsand vegetables in their classrooms,using indoor gardens calledEarthBoxes. This helps them learnabout nutrition and creating food.
“It’s a way of making children awarethat they don’t have to depend uponothers for their food,” Willows says.
“Part of what you eat you can providefor yourself.” The research teamis exploring a number of differenthorticultural projects to improve thecommunity’s access to fresh fruitsand vegetables.
Much has changed in thecommunity since the start of theresearch partnership, Arcand says.
The school now has a nutrition andhealth policy, which led to the hotlunch program and it has removedjunk food from the canteen. Kidsare sharing information aboutnutrition and physical activity withtheir families. “A lot of good workhas been done as a result of thepartnerships that our nation and