STONEY NAKODA— Looking to provide easy access to healthy food for rural residents, The Stoney Nakoda Drive-Thru Market has been available each Thursday since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The market plays an important role in creating a healthy community, said Stoney Health Services Executive Director Aaron Khan.
Food security is often a challenge for rural residents and the market offers accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables within the Stoney Nakoda First Nation.
“Transportation is a huge issue … And fresh fruits and grocery stores have not developed along the reserve,” Khan said. “Bringing the food market specifically to the reserve it gives the Nation members an opportunity to purchase fresh fruits and veggies at a pretty good price.”
The Stoney Nakoda Drive-Thru Food Market is hosted each Thursday by Stoney Health Services from noon to 3 p.m. The drive-thru recently moved to a new location on Jan. 21 at the new Chiniki Community Kitchen.
The drive-thru market is one way for Stoney Health Services to provide healthy produce in a safe manner to Nation members.
“We want to make sure that our people get healthy food,” Khan said. “It’s not just a grocery, this is the avenue where you can ask questions to the dietitian about your health— You are coming to buy groceries but if you have any health questions, we can answer them.”
The market is made possible through a partnership with the non-profit Fresh Routes. Each food box is available for $20 and includes an assortment of pre-packaged vegetables, fruits and eggs.
“We try to keep it to things people want,” said Stoney Health Services registered dietitian Paige Thomson. “We go based on people's feedback.”
The market has been taking place since 2018, said Registered Dietitian Renfrew Education Service contracted to Stoney Health Lindsay McCharles, but pivoted to a drive-thru format in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our preferred set up of the Food Market is to have it like a grocery store or farmers market-style where people can go through and pick their produce themselves,” McCharles said. “But with the safety measures and it being a health centre program we have put in the extra precautions of having it as a drive-thru market.”
Since its inception, the market has been held every week and quickly found success when it pivoted to its new drive-thru format.
“We haven’t missed a week. A lot of people really rely on having access to the fruits and vegetables,” Thomson said. “A lot of people can go to Costco or Walmart to get the non-perishables but it's harder to get those fresh fruits and vegetables especially at the cost we can do here.”
It has been a positive experience hosting a drive-thru, Thomson added, because it offers a chance to meet the community members more often.
“There’s a ton of people that I look forwarded to seeing,” Thomson said with a grin. “It is really nice.”
Numerous health measures are in place for the drive-thru. Staff providing the food boxes are required to wear masks, face shields, goggles and gowns and use sanitizer at all times to ensure the safety of all involved.
The Food Market has taken on a new meaning during COVID-19 because it allows residents to feel safe and stay close to home, Thomson said.
On a typical Food Market during the winter they can see between 60 to 70 orders. In the summer they have seen more than 100 people visit on a busy day.
Registered dietitian Mayra Regan helped found the market and built the partnership with Fresh Routes.
“One of the main problems of food insecurity is accessibility to healthy foods,” Regan said, explaining how it can be challenging for rural residents to travel to larger centres for dietary staples like fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs.
The market started as a small tent outside the Stoney Tribal Authority and the idea was to bring fresh fruits to the community, while offering a space for community members to host theirs own booths with items for sale.
Regan compared the idea to a farmer's market.
“It was a safe place to make some income because the main problem with food security is employment,” Regan said. “This is a space for them to come and access some healthier options.”
Over the past three years the Food Market has continued to grow and expand the programs offered.
The Food Market introduced a new program on Jan. 28 to ensure children in the schools on the Nation are able to receive meals while in-person learning is not possible. The Stoney Education Authority partnered with Stoney Health Services to provide extra food boxes to students.
“We want to make sure the kids are getting all the fresh fruits and vegetables while there doing the homeschooling,” Khan said.
Transportation can also provide challenges in the community so Nakoda Bus Line drivers have volunteered to deliver food boxes to students and their families once a week.
The boxes come with ingredients and recipes for the creation of easily crafted home-cooked meals.
“It gets kids a lot more familiar with those foods and the whole community in general,” Thomson said. “If they’re going to big department stores like Costco they can add a little bit more variety and supplement.”
The food box deliveries are sign-up-based and can be requested through the student's teacher.
One of the exciting aspects is the Food Market is continuing to expand, and when COVID-19 measures are eased it will take place inside the new Chiniki Community Kitchen.
The new space is a “dream,” Regan said, because it allowed them to create a food kitchen for the community.
They initially applied for funding in 2018 to create a space that could run programs and provide the community access to a commercial kitchen.
Health promoter Mel Bigstoney said staff and residents are eager to see the pandemic come to an end so they can once again return to the Food Market's communal experience and visit the community kitchen.
The food kitchen will allow them to create healthy cooking videos during the pandemic and they will one day host in-person cooking classes.
Bigstoney said he is excited for the day community members will be able to gather in the community kitchen and participate in fun and educational cooking classes.
There are many benefits to the community kitchen including providing access to healthy meals and aiding in developing life skills including meal planning, growing fruits and vegetables, budgeting and cooking skills.
“The community kitchen can also support the Nation members to connect with each other and make new friends and socialize,” Khan said.
The kitchen is operational but is not currently open for in-person gatherings under the current public health measures.
Khan added, everyone is looking forward to when the kitchen is once again allowed to reopen as it will serve as space for Elders to pass on stories and traditions to the younger generations.
“This is an opportunity for elders as well as for our youth to come together and learn their experiences and have a place where they can socialize and get some new skills,” Khan said. “Bringing people together to socialize, to learn from each other, to support each other is a part of health— We’re trying to build healthy communities and the kitchen is a big cornerstone of that.”