Planting healthy patterns

On a summer day in Fort McKay, children and youth gather around cedar garden beds, eagerly pointing out peeks of green poking through the soil.

The prospect of fresh produce is particularly exciting to residents of the rural community in Northern Alberta, where the nearest fresh fruits and vegetables are typically a 45 minute drive away in Fort McMurray.

Funded through Communities ChooseWell seed grants, the Fort McKay Wellness Center built the four garden beds to supplement their garden towers, used to grow fruits and vegetables in the long winter season. But the gardening initiative is about more than providing fresh produce and food security—it’s an opportunity to educate young people on healthy eating.

“The gardens helped our kids try new things,” says Julia Soucie, the Wellness Center’s director. “So for something like radishes, most of the kids are asking ‘What’s a radish? I’ve never seen a radish before!’ but they want to try it because they grew it, and now it’s something they actually enjoy.”

Health education can occur right from the planting stage all the way to eating, adds Julia. The centre hosts a gardening club in May and June where they teach kids to seed the fruit and vegetables inside, and explain how to replace junk foods with healthy snacks. Through the summer, day campers visit the garden beds and harvest the produce. Finally, the crops are brought to the centre’s Mini Chef’s and Young Chef’s programs (for kids aged 6-17), where the children and youth are taught how to prepare healthy, home-cooked meals using the fruits and vegetables.

“It’s great for the kids to see a project through from start to finish,” says Julia. “The kids are used to making crafts or doing activities, but the garden is beneficial to the community because it’s something healthy to eat. And something they can look forward to all the time.”

This focus on teaching young people new skills and attitudes earned Fort McKay an award from ChooseWell in 2019 for Providing Health Education. The award celebrates the community’s work to educate children not only on healthy eating, but physical activity.

This past year, the Wellness Centre launched SPARK (Sports, Physical Activity and Recreation for Kids) to introduce children and youth to new sports and activities. Whether the kids are dribbling a basketball, trying a new yoga pose or racing through an obstacle course, the program always starts with basic, fundamental movement skills so all children can learn and participate, regardless of skill.

“The main thing is showing the kids and youth that anyone can do it—activities can be adapted to meet everybody’s needs,” says Julia. “The goal is for everyone to be included and work up to being confident so they are more likely to continue.”

Ultimately, Julia says her work has taught her that most people want to be active, they just need an accessible way to get involved and learn for themselves.

“I think people want to be healthy, but they need someone to introduce them,” she explains. “You just have to find a way to get them out there and show them it’s fun and provide those opportunities without a barrier.”