Community food forest producing food security
- NC Raine | December 07, 2021
An ambitious food sovereignty project at Muskeg Lake Cree Nation has produced some community-altering results. And it’s just getting started.
The food forest program started in 2018 as a way for the First Nation to provide its members with food security and create food sovereignty.
A food forest is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Food forests are typically resilient and, unlike a garden, do not have to be completely replanted year after year.
“We want to re-establish some lost cultural practices of land stewardship,” said Les Arcand, operations manager at Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.
“What we do has impacts on the future, so we need to ensure that whatever we do is done with that thought in mind, so we're not hurting our future by doing something irresponsible.”
The food forest program started after permaculturist Steven Wiig made a presentation in the community, which sparked a food forest plan with leadership. Three years later, with Wiig now serving as Food Security Supervisor, the program has been an undeniable success. The food forest provides fruit and vegetables for the local school to use for its lunch program and for Elders as part of the Meals on Wheels program.
“The food production isn’t close to what it will be. The apple trees will take ten years to mature, so it’s a long-term investment. It’s not at the point where the whole community is benefitting, but we're building up to that,” said Wiig.
The food forest takes up roughly 2.5 acres on the First Nation and produces a variety of edible plants native to the land, such as buffalo berries, wild cherries, sand cherries, grapes, plum trees, raspberries, strawberries and a variety of vegetable crops – mainly vegetables like potatoes, carrots, onions and beets – which are easy to store.
They have also planted flowers around the food forest area, as a way to make it an inviting community hub, said Wiig.
“The term ‘wâhkôtowin,’ which is Cree for kinship - since I started working with Muskeg Lake, I've heard this term used over and over, how every living being is part of our family. And that's our goal with the food forest and how it fits in with the Cree way of seeing the world,” he said.
On November 2, Muskeg Lake received a Community Development Heritage Award from the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, which recognizes projects or initiatives that support the betterment of the social, cultural, environmental, or economic life of the community.
“We know that we are going down the right path because of this award,” said Arcand.
“It's a great accomplishment for the work the food team has put together. Something our nation has really embraced is the concept of food security. Just regaining our land base and utilizing it to the maximum potential,” he said.
Going forward, Muskeg Lake would like to produce an economic return on its food forest by selling value-added items, as it will eventually harvest more apples than the people can consume. They also plan to continue to ensure education is a big part of the project, with young students being involved in the planting and harvesting every year.
Some social benefits are already emerging, Arcand said.
“Since we started, we've seen a huge uptick in the amount of personal gardens in the community. People are bringing it back to the old days when we used to grow our own produce. They're seeing the scale that Steven and the team are doing it, and incorporating it in their own garden systems.”