Dakota Cherry Spotlight: Braiding Food Systems in Northern Ontario for Food Sovereignty, Security, and Climate Adaptation

Posted on Monday, October 30th, 2023

Dakota Cherry poses cheekily for a photo in front of an archway of plants, wearing an orange shirt and a brown vest and smiling.
Dakota Cherry, Family Relations and Human Development Master's Student

“Food sovereignty is only possible if it takes place at the same time as political sovereignty of peoples.” (Nyéléni 2007: 5) 

Family Relations and Human Development Master's student Dakota Cherry believes that supporting communities in achieving food sovereignty, or the capacity to determine their own food futures and food security, is essential in building the food systems we need. Dakota shared some insights on her research and how she believes we can positively impact our food systems. 

What is your program and area of research? 

I am a 2nd-year MSc student in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, focusing on food security and sovereignty among remote First Nations in Northern Ontario. This research contextualizes the pursuit of holistic Health as a pursuit towards food sovereignty.  

Influenced by historical and present-day consequences of colonialism, remote First Nation communities grapple with access to affordable and culturally relevant foods. Climate change has resulted in additional limitations on traditional food practices and access, thereby increasing dependence on expensive, store-bought foods. As a result, the prevalence of health risks such as diabetes and heart disease are rising without long-term, culturally relevant approaches that prioritize community Health and wellbeing. Contemporary research predominantly uses a biomedical perspective, overlooking the valuable contributions of community-specific knowledge and perspectives. Instruments like the Canadian Household Food Security Questionnaire, for example, potentially skew data by emphasizing parental shortcomings. My thesis seeks to bridge this gap by centering community perspectives on holistic Health, sovereignty, and self-determination in progress metrics. 

Specifically, it will explore Indigenous peoples' perspectives on food sovereignty in juxtaposition to Western conceptions of food security and sovereignty. Indigenous Food Sovereignty (IFS) distinguishes itself from Western concepts of food security and sovereignty by its profound interconnectedness with cultural, spiritual, ecological, and territorial dimensions. While the Western food security models mainly emphasize physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, food sovereignty delves into people's right to define their food systems and food policies. IFS grounds its principles in Indigenous relationships to the land and recognizes the sustenance of diverse cultural landscapes and natural environments as essential to the Health and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples. This holistic worldview envisions food as nourishment and a conduit for passing down traditional knowledge, maintaining spiritual relationships, and affirming sovereignty over ancestral lands and territories.  

What do you wish your colleagues/friends/family knew about your work?  

Because food sovereignty seeks to transform dominant forces, including those associated with politics, economics, gender, and the environment, I wish my friends and family knew how crucial Indigenous perspectives are to establishing just and sustainable food systems. 

Grey and Patel, in their paper "Food Sovereignty as Decolonization: Some Contributions from Indigenous Movements to Food System and Development Politics," explain that decolonizing food systems requires "a daily mode of resistance—a form of food systems practice informed, in equal measure, by a vision of democratic engagement and historical experiences of resistance."    

Every day, we can resist colonial food systems through our food choices. Whenever we source food from a local farmer and engage in practices that work towards transforming our food systems, we build more sustainable systems supportive of human and environmental health and wellbeing.   

How would you explain your discipline and/or research to someone who wasn't in your program?   

As a researcher in Family Relations and Human Development, I study health and development in diverse communities by applying theory in practice. Essentially, food security is most frequently thought of in terms of food production, but it's equally important to consider the social and cultural elements of food that underscore health.  

I am currently conducting research on food security and sovereignty. My objective is to develop a survey that evaluates these issues from a strengths-based perspective, focusing on the experiences of elders, children, and families in relation to traditional food knowledge and practices. By doing so, I hope to empower communities to prioritize the development of their own food pathways.   

This research is part of a larger initiative called the Braiding Food Systems project led by Dr. Silvia Sarapura, which involves seven interdisciplinary scholars collaborating with Up North on Climate and several remote First Nations in northern Ontario.  Traditional food knowledge and practices are critical elements of health, so my research aims to empower communities and agencies to determine their own food pathways. 

Have you learned/discovered anything that has surprised you since beginning your studies/this initiative at Guelph? If so, what?  

I've learned that research-based approaches to understanding and addressing problems such as food security and sovereignty can be problematic when they arise from Western technoscientific practices that pursue knowledge in an analytical sense because, in contrast, Indigenous ways of knowing or coming to know are based on 'wisdom in action,' and 'relationality' which connects theory and practice, spirituality and empiricism. I've learned that research with Indigenous Peoples must be rooted in collaborative partnerships, and researchers must make efforts to nurture and develop these partnerships, centering Indigenous leadership and autonomy every step of the way.   

What is your proudest accomplishment? 

Writing two fruitful grant applications for half a million dollars, one in collaboration with community members from Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation and the other with community members from Emily Murphy Non-profit Housing Corporation in Ottawa, are my proudest accomplishments. What made both successful was the fact that community members were co-creators.  

In the first case, I worked with Head Start program staff and the Economic Officer in acquiring a Growcer indoor growing system to engage young people in food systems and as a way to provide the community with nutrient-rich greens such as kale and culturally significant plants such as lily pads for medicinal tea. 

In the second application, community members, many of whom were single mothers, already had strong food-related programs such as Collective Kitchen workshops and a community cookbook. They wanted to expand their food infrastructure and resources by developing a food pantry, a regular breakfast program, and opportunities to provide culturally relevant foods for their mixed ancestry children to connect with their cultures through foods. The community partners and I are incredibly proud that these projects empowered communities to be more autonomous in deciding the types of foods and food systems they want and need. These are concrete examples of food sovereignty in practice. 

What drives you?    

What drives me is a deep love and respect for the natural environment, a commitment to building strong and healthy communities, and a dream for improving One Health so that people and children at a high risk of diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease have access to lifegiving foods needed to live active, fulfilling lives.  

Many of the problems we collectively face, such as climate change, poor Health, and political disengagement, stem from a lack of connectivity, mainly because poverty traps families in a system wherein food is a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a sacred right in line with Indigenous understandings.  

Working with people on the ground to increase their capacities for community-based food projects has been a valuable driver in my continued goal to support these initiatives. I am eager to continue applying my skills to support communities and, one day, influence government policies that support the health of plants, ecosystems, and people, or holism.  

News Archive