Working to make healthy food more accessible in Eeyou Istchee

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With a large family to feed, Deputy Grand Chief Rodney Mark is no stranger to the soaring cost of food in Eeyou Istchee. Now he has the statistics to prove how much more the James Bay Cree are paying to feed themselves. The Cree Nation Government (CNG) and the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) have just published a study which shows, outside of the Arctic, that residents of Eeyou Istchee pay significantly more for their groceries than anywhere else in Canada.

Presented to the CNG Board Council meeting on January 24, the study shows that, on average, it can cost a family of four living in poverty up to 75% of their income to put healthy food on the table for everyone. What many end up doing is buying more affordable processed foods that are high in fat, salt, sugar and carbohydrates.

Mark says the game plan is to meet with each community’s chief and council to present the report, then develop a working team at a local level with CNG and CBHSSJB reps. The idea is to present the general framework for action by improving access to nutrition food in Eeyou Istchee.

“Greater access to healthier food is going to be a challenge as this will involve commitment and cooperation with local grocery stores,” said Mark. “To do this we would need to meet development corporations and stores to discuss how this can be achieved.”

rodney mark

Mark said that an educational awareness campaign will roll out over the coming weeks. As March is designated Nutrition Month by the Dietitians of Canada, Mark and nutritionist Chantal Vinet-Lanouette will be conducting radio interviews on the importance of healthy eating. There are also upcoming community meetings on the subject in Chisasibi, Waskaganish, Eastman and Oujé-Bougoumou.

During those meetings, Mark said he will thoroughly explain the implications of a poor diet when it comes to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and also heart and lung diseases.

According to Mark, the campaign is being well received and the chiefs of the communities are motivated to address the issue.

“Our stats on diabetes are extremely alarming and I believe we are all affected by having diabetes or knowing someone who has it,” said Mark. “It is my hope people take this seriously and take action to promote healthy eating and of course exercise. We would like to establish affordable prices for healthy foods at local level. Each community has a nutritionist so we plan to work with them and a rep at the local level.”

After looking at the data, the Nation asked CBHSSJB Chairperson Bella Moses Petawabano a few questions:

The Nation (TN): With statistics as damning as a projection of 40% of Crees being diabetic by 2030 and children as young as nine being diagnosed in 2016, what is the CBHSSJB’s role in not only treating the people but preventing diabetes before it even starts in the youth?

Bella Moses Petawabano (BMP): The Cree Health Board does much, much more than treat disease. The Cree Health Board works on prevention through awareness campaigns and working with local and regional partners to build healthy communities. In every community of Eeyou Istchee, our CHRs, nurses, nutritionists and other health workers carry out education activities in the schools and daycares, radio shows, campaigns like “Drop the Pop,” breastfeeding promotion, cooking workshops, food tasting in the stores, and support for walking clubs, snowshoeing activities, and local health conferences like the one held recently in Chisasibi, called “Masters of our Own Health.” Many of these activities are geared towards children, youth and young parents.

You point to one of the important roles of the Cree Health Board, which is “surveillance” – keeping track of data on disease trends in our communities and sharing this data with the people and the leadership, so we can have informed decision-making. This is how we know that currently one adult out of four (25%) is living with diabetes in Eeyou Istchee. This is a very disturbing picture of our future as a Nation. In addition to surveillance, the Cree Health Board also carries out research when we need to understand more about a problem, which is why we compared the cost and availability of nutritious food in our communities with other parts of Quebec.

TN: If the Crees manage to mobilize to get cheaper food into Eeyou Istchee, how is the Health Board prepared to get people to eat it? Convenience foods are very popular in the communities; how would the Health Board getting Crees to change their food habits?

BMP: We need to avoid blaming people for their choices when in some cases it is impossible to eat healthy in our communities and our children are surrounded by easy access to junk food. People know that poutine is not healthy. A big part of the problem is that fresh, good, healthy food is often not accessible and not affordable in our communities, especially for low-income families, many of which are headed by single mothers. This is what our research demonstrates.

grand-chief-matthew-coon-come-with-director-bella-moses-petawabanoWe need to make sure the healthy options are the convenient and affordable options, not the other way around.

Our patients often say it, and we have all experienced it. At many restaurants there is only unhealthy food and sugary drinks on the menu, or “healthy” options are a lot more expensive. We want to buy vegetables at the store but they are too expensive or not available. Parents complain that in some cases their children are being served fast foods at daycare or at school.

On our side, at the Cree Health Board we are going to continue doing what we have been doing, providing the best care we can to our patients and doing outreach and education. We will continue to work with community partners to help protect our environment, our drinking water, and to promote and improve access to traditional food. We will continue to monitor disease trends and carry out relevant research. We feel that these efforts will be stronger if all the other entities and our private sector partners are also mobilizing with us.

TN: What do you see as the most important aspect in seeing change in the health of Crees?

BMP: We need a major, collaborative effort to address the chronic disease crisis in our Nation. This is the number one priority of the CBHSSJB. It is part of the new CBHSSJB Strategic Regional Plan. It was established as a priority by community members and stakeholders during the May 2016 Eeyou/Eenou Regional Assembly on Health and Social Services in Waskaganish. Improving access to nutritious foods in Eeyou Istchee is one of the most important things we can do to contribute to the prevention of chronic diseases.

TN: What has the public reaction been to the presentation?

BMP: Our presentation has brought a lot of interest. The comments of the chiefs and community representatives on the Framework for Action were really positive and supportive. We’ve had a lot of interest from the media. Our Cree media know how important this issue is. It touches people in their daily lives. All of us are aware that buying food is a daily struggle for many families.

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