Enabling nutritious choices

young girl at kitchen counter washing lettuce leavesIt’s not good news: Canada’s young people are overweight, and the chief culprits are poor eating habits and lack of exercise. Obesity is a particular problem among First Nations youth, putting them at increased risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Professors Rhona Hanning, public health and health systems, and Len Tsuji, environment and resource studies, with PhD candidate Kelly Skinner and other graduate students, are working to understand the complexities of this challenge and at the same time to help James Bay-area First Nations communities deal with it. Hanning and Skinner are conducting their research as members of Waterloo’s Propel Centre for Population Health Impact.

Earlier research led by Hanning and Tsuji confirmed that people in these communities face serious health obstacles, including limited recreational facilities and poor quality, expensive produce. Recently, some schoolchildren sampled kiwi fruit and cantaloupe for the first time in their lives.

As outcomes of that research, breakfast and snack programs in the schools were developed; physical activity programs are being introduced. In Fort Albany, a new greenhouse will help the children learn about gardening while they grow fresh food for the snack program.

The current research is part of a $1.9-million national project aimed at reducing childhood obesity in Canada. The Waterloo researchers are using a web-based survey to assess the food intake and physical activity of 250 Cree schoolchildren in grades 6 to 10. To maintain personal contacts, Skinner and other grad students often visit the remote communities, travelling by small plane and boat, snowmobile, or pick-up truck.

The research results will be used, in partnership with First Nations communities on the western James Bay coast, to adapt and evaluate existing programs and develop new ones. An ultimate goal is to produce a survey template to be shared with First Nations communities across Canada, to help them gain better control of their food supply.

“We see ourselves as partners with the communities,” Hanning says. “We supply the information, so they can make their own decisions about the kind of change they want to happen.”