By promoting more locally grown food on reserves, the Heart and Stroke Foundation is hoping to reduce the risk factors for heart disease among aboriginal Canadians.
Through funding from the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), the foundation has been helping remote communities set up gardens and greenhouses to grow more food on the reserve.
"In remote communities getting produce in can be quite an arduous process and expensive," Heart and Stroke Foundation manager of research and health initiatives Dr. Jeff Sommers said. "You have cost and geography working against you."
A report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) released this week on the health outcomes for aboriginals after heart attacks detailed the increased risk factors the group faces. For instance, First Nations people living both off and on reserves have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, daily tobacco use and physical inactivity than the general population. On reserve First Nations residents also have a higher than average rate of hypertension.
Of the 15 communities involved in the Food Systems in Remote Communities program, seven are in the northern interior or north coast regions including Kwadacha and Tsay Keh Dene north of Prince George. Communities were selected primarily on their remoteness, with many not accessible by all season roads.
The qualifying communities get money for seeds and materials for gardens and greenhouses and get visits from horticulturists who help set up the gardens and develop community food plans to integrate the fresh produce into traditional diets.
"Potatoes are big, because they're relatively easy to grow," Sommers said. "Some places are growing berries, others are planting fruit trees."
Greens like lettuce are also popular because they're adaptable to northern climates and carrots are another common crop.
The management of the program varies by community to community. In some cases the bands build community gardens, while in others each participating family plants their own plot.
There is an added emphasis on food preservation, like canning or food drying, so the produce can last longer.
The program has been around in one form or another since 2009 and just received $700,000 in new funding in November from the PHSA.
Sommers said the results so far are encouraging, but it will take a while to determine exactly what impact it's having on heart health.
"It takes a long time to look at whether something like this will change health on an individual level," he said. "We're talking about fairly small populations. The first thing is to promote food security and healthier eating and the improvements in health come further down the line."
The CIHI report determined that people living in areas where there is a high concentration of aboriginal population are more likely to have a heart attack, but that their health outcomes are similar once they're treated.
The report used an area-based approach because the ethnicity of patients isn't tracked uniformly around the country. Instead the researchers looked at areas that have a higher percentage of aboriginal people among the general population.
The CIHI report also singled out Northern Health's aboriginal patient liaison program as something that's working well to help patients once they're in hospital.
The liaison workers help guide the patients through the health care system by providing additional explanation for treatments. According to CIHI, the program has helped both increase satisfaction among patients and encourage them to adhere to treatments more often.
Northern Health spokeswoman Eryn Collins said the health authority is pleased to have its program recognized in the report. Northern Health is also currently evaluating its 2013 Imagine grant applications, which include a category dedicated to heart health.
"We continue to receive applications for heart health and health promotion projects in aboriginal communities across the North," Collins said.
The grants can be worth up to $2,000 each.