There’s nothing quite like the experience of fresh, locally grown food.

But for several reserves across Atlantic Canada, fresh produce is not readily available. Rural, isolated Indigenous reserves are often food deserts, where community members need to drive long distances to purchase healthy food. This became even more difficult with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to a partnership between Ulnooweg and United Ways in Atlantic Canada, that’s changing. Ulnooweg and United Way successfully submitted a joint application for funding through the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF), to build and run six greenhouses on isolated reserves that have higher rates of food insecurity.

Program coordinator Holly Griffiths says the project will do even more than provide food though. “This project will build community resilience. It’s about bringing healthy food back to the community.”

She acknowledges a huge part of the project is also about protecting the environment by growing food close to home. “One of the Indigenous ways of knowing is being sustainable and only taking from the earth what is needed.” Trucking in vegetables from the other side of the world involves a huge carbon footprint. “Having that food grown in community is better for earth, and it’s better for everyone.”

Getting this project off the ground was a huge undertaking, with a large budget to manage, unforeseen challenges such as building materials not being available, shipping delays and even a shortage of seeds. It required a full commitment from United Way staff, as well. It was our first time funding a program on reserves, and was a meaningful opportunity to build relationships, learn more about Indigenous wisdom, and practice our commitment to truth and reconciliation.

Holly says United Way was understanding of the challenges along the way.

“We felt very well supported. United Way immediately understood the needs in community and the benefits of this project. They were heavily invested in seeing it succeed.”

Growing future success

The impacts of that success will reach far beyond the food harvested from the greenhouse. The project is making it possible for community members to learn more about agriculture, gain business and job opportunities through the market gardens, and there are plans for a green energy food hub, too. The lessons learned from special climate batteries being used to extend the growing season in the greenhouse will allow others to innovate or scale up similar greenhouse projects.

“The possibilities and potential benefits are limitless,” says Holly. “This partnership has been a really positive experience for us.”