How one Alberta First Nation addressed food security in an isolated, northern community

Residents in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., say a community-owned grocery store has changed their eating habits for the better.

In August 2018, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation opened the K’ai Tailé Market, a grocery store with a mandate to provide affordable, fresh food for residents. It’s not a profit-driven model.

The ACFN spent $ 7 million on the store.

The store, whose name in Dene ​means “people of the land of the willow,” opened in response to community concerns about food prices and food security. 

Fort Chipewyan is only accessible by road in the winter months. The rest of the year, goods need to be flown in. 

Many locals would shop 280 kilometres away in Fort McMurray, then pack their bags and fly their goods back to Fort Chipewyan. 

But now residents are finding they don’t have to do this as much because the prices in Fort Chipewyan are more comparable to Fort McMurray. 

Coun. Bruce Inglis said in years past the price of food in the community was between 50 and 100 per cent more than Fort McMurray, but now it’s closer to 20 per cent. 

Prices in Fort Chipewyan have dropped since the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation opened a grocery store. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

“I think people are eating better,” said Inglis. “They have more disposable income because they know they’re not spending so much on food.”

Inglis frequently goes to Fort McMurray, but now he said he’s not stuffing his bags with nearly as much food as he used to. 

“I would be bringing back produce and fresh food and whatnot. And now I get very little from Fort McMurray.”

He said he’d rather pay a little bit more money to support a business in Fort Chipewyan. Inglis added that he still buys some goods at the Northern Store, the community’s only other grocery store. 

“It’s better to have two versus one,” said Inglis. He added that he’s noticed the prices decrease at the Northern Store and the quality increase. 

“I feel that this has probably had the biggest impact on our community in the last 20 years.”

Cathwyn Philpotts, executive director of operations for K’ai Tailé Market, said it took some time for the store to order the right products and enough of them, to serve the community. 

Employees at the market. Cathwyn Philpotts, bottom row, second from the left, says they’ve worked out the kinks since they opened the doors. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

“People started using the market a lot right away, but like any new business it takes a little while to work out the kinks,” said Philpotts.

“It’s ongoing learning.”

Philpotts said they’re trying to create as little waste as possible, so they are now putting discounts on food that’s close to expiring or they’re giving food away for free. 

They will be expanding in-house programs, like nutritional support for prenatal and new moms, and helping with gluten-free and lactose-free diets. 

“We already have quite a bit of the product in, but it’s just we want to come up with some in house signage.”

The market has been in operation since August 2018. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Horace Adam, 78, an elder and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said the store is valuable for the community. 

“It’s a store to help the local people,” said Adam. “There’s nothing there outdated.”

He said the quality of the produce has also been much better and fresher. 

“The price is reasonable, people are happy about it.”

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