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Exploring Food Systems Research with NNDDC’s Catherine Littlefield

Catherine Littlefield in Mayo, summer 2023.


Hello Catherine, thanks for being here! Would you be able to start us off by sharing what a Food Systems Researcher is as a job?


Food Systems Researcher is a new role at NNDDC that aligns with the priority development area of Food Sovereignty and Security. Food systems refer to the multiple activities and relationships that go into producing, harvesting, processing, preparing, and sharing food, including the governance of food. Food systems research is a process of collecting and connecting information, it is a relational process – relationships are central to food systems research and to my job. My role is to act as a connector, gatherer, or facilitator to help support food-related projects and activities.  Ultimately, the goal is to support NNDDC initiatives and work related to making Mayo and the NND Traditional Territory a healthy, vibrant, and food secure community in a way that upholds Northern Tutchone culture, knowledge, and self-determination.


Can you share with us a little bit about yourself and how you came to this role with NNDDC?


In 2021, I started doing community-engaged food systems research with the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun through a graduate program at Carleton University. Carleton and NND have wonderful long-term collaborative research partnership, and my master’s thesis (“Gathering, Governing, and Gifting Food: Community Economy and Food Distribution in the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun”) emerged from this relationship.


I grew up and live in Algonquin Anishinaabe Territory/Ottawa. I’m interested in socio-ecological relations – how we relate with the world around us, with each other, ourselves, and the land – and how this connects with food systems and wellbeing. 


In the summer of 2022, I spent a couple of months in Mayo participating in community events and doing interviews with NND community members, Elders, and leaders. I then returned home to dig into this research, write, and finish school. During this time, I also started working with NNDDC as a natural connection and continuation of this work, and I am really grateful to be able to bring this research into our work at the dev corp. 


We hear a lot of conversation about food sovereignty and food security. Can you shed some light on the difference between these two ideas, especially within the context of an Indigenous community?


Great question.

Food sovereignty and food security are two different concepts that often share similar ideas, with different points of focus. Food security is widely used from local to global scales, defined as the ability of people to access and afford sufficient food that meets nutritional needs. Food security is linked with and often defined by factors such as socioeconomic equality and physical health. 


Food sovereignty is an idea that emerges from grassroots movements (see: https://viacampesina.org/en/) as an inherently political and contextual approach. Food sovereignty speaks to the need for diverse groups to define and control their own food systems in order to meet holistic wellbeing, including physical, mental, social, and spiritual health, and the health of the ecosystems we depend upon for nourishment. It is an idea that supports true democracy: the participation of the people whom policy affects in decision-making processes. 


Indigenous food sovereignty builds upon the food sovereignty movement to recognize the particular colonial impacts on Indigenous food systems, as well as community’s cultural rights and responsibilities to maintain Indigenous foodways, which include traditional governance, law, land relations, and the understanding of food as a sacred gift from and relationship with the Earth. A great example of this is think access to affordable packaged food vs. access to moose meat or wild berries. While packaged food may meet some of the affordability and nutritional health factors for our community, moose meat and berries have historical and cultural significance. It is the food of ancestors, and eating moose, berries, or any of the diverse and rich traditional foods connects people to the land and each other.  


As a development corporation, NNDDC is tasked really with improving the overall wellbeing of our people, lands, and waters. Can you share how food plays a role in this?


Food is central to collective wellbeing as a truly interconnective phenomenon: we all need to eat, and food brings people and places together. Food also connects us with the more-than-human world (the land, waters, animals, and plants) that we depend upon for survival, food can provide us with a sense of belonging, and food is medicine. 


Food systems are shaped and influenced by economic, political, social, cultural, and ecological factors. We need to consider food when making political and economic decisions that impact, for example, the health of the land, which in turn impacts overall wellbeing. By including Food Sovereignty and Security as a core value and reinvestment mechanism, NNDDC strives to support the overall wellbeing of people, lands, and waters by embedding an understanding of our interconnectivity in economic development initiatives. 


You’ve been part of the NNDDC for a little while now, can you share with us some exciting key findings that have happened?


Working with this team and working for the NND community has been inspiring and enlivening. Our current food systems research and mapping work will help to identify opportunities for investment and reinvestment in the Traditional Territory in support of co-creating access to more healthy, cultural, and accessible foods. A big part of this work is building relationships with local and regional food makers, growers and producers of all forms, and mapping out potential connections and innovations to explore. I’m looking forward to the next steps of bringing people and ideas together to collectively vision community food futures. 


An exciting finding from this process so far is the power of food as a connector, how food can bring people and place together, spur creativity, and cultivate wellbeing – something the NND community understands well, having a rich history of dynamic food practices such as hunting, fishing, gathering, preparing, preserving, sharing, and trading food. At NNDDC we’ve witnessed the power of food and are bringing it into more practices of our business, such as transitioning our Annual Citizens Meeting from a stuffy presentation to a dinner where food and conversation flows as we share updates on our work. Mayo Foods is a major asset of NNDDC and the community. It has been central to a lot of research and thinking on how to improve everything from access to affordability, and ensuring that culturally relevant foods are available locally! Further,  projects like Ihdzí’ are so exciting to support as they are bite-sized steps to facilitate more food connection in the community: a place to gather and share food, time, energy, and knowledge. 


Another important learning from food systems research with NND is how Dooli law teachings relate to food systems and how keeping caring, sharing, respect, and teaching at the top of our minds and hearts can guide and inspire our work.


Can you share with us about how the key findings from food systems research has made an impact in the lives of NND Citizens? 


It’s important that the key findings from the food systems research are community-oriented and driven by NND Citizens’ hopes, dreams, ideas, and needs. Key findings so far point to the importance of food, and especially traditional food practices and teachings, to the NND community. The findings also point to opportunities for food connection both within and beyond the NND community: we are collectively facing increasing food prices, decreasing accessibility of land-based foods, climate change, and social and economic challenges that limit abilities to participate in the food system in a good way. With these wicked challenges come openings for increasing collaboration, teaching and learning, and embracing strength in diversity – we need to work together today for the children and food of tomorrow! 



For NND Citizens who are interested in collaborating in building food systems and food sovereignty, are there any opportunities for them to get involved or get in touch with you? 


Absolutely! If you are interested in collaborating, or have ideas, comments, or questions, please get in touch with me by phone (613-617-1047) or email (catherine.littlefield@nnddc.ca). We will also be doing more food systems engagement this year, with opportunities to work together and discuss how best to build holistically sustainable and desirable food futures. 


Anything else we should know about, or things to look out for on the horizon?


Stay tuned for community food systems events later this year, where we would love to hear and learn more from you about what you would like to see, feel, and experience in your food system. Hosting a food systems visioning workshop will be critical to guide our food systems development in a good way. 

Some other things to look out for include the official launch of Ihdzí’, an exciting opportunity for more food connection in Mayo. Stay tuned for more collaborations with Yukon food producers and innovators as we continue to dream and work together, and strive to bring some new grocery options to the local Mayo Foods store as well.



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