A unique program based in Thunder Bay, Ont., is using food bank donations to help people with kidney disease in four remote First Nations.
Each month, a dietitian from the regional hospital sorts through the cans and cartons donated to the Regional Food Distribution Association with the goal of creating personalized packages for dialysis patients.
The boxes are then shipped north by the association to patients in remote First Nations, where nutritious food is often priced out of reach for many families.
“Food is medicine,” said Gary Manoakeesic, with the diabetes prevention program in Sandy Lake First Nation, as he delivered the first boxes to arrive for clients he works with in the community 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
“This is a great opportunity for [people in] Sandy Lake to learn what is healthy eating,” he said.
As elder Georgina Kakagamic sorted the box Manoakeesic delivered to her home, she asked him to explain the use of some of the items, such as protein-enhanced cereals.
“I have a really strict diet because of my kidney disease,” she said.
Variety is limited at Sandy Lake’s only grocery store, where earlier this month a bag of salad greens was price at $ 8.25 and 10 kilograms of flour was priced at about $ 40. In late December, flyers in Thunder Bay showed similar greens available for $ 3.99 and a 10 kg bag flour for $ 11.99.
A retired teacher, Kakagamic helped write a special diabetes-related curriculum for Grade 3 and 4 students at the Sandy Lake school, part of a broader effort ot help curtail the high diabetes rate in the remote community.
Since being diagnosed with kidney disease and starting dialysis about a year ago, Kakagamic said she’s been learning a whole new way of eating.
No tomatoes or bananas
”Even all the good food that as a diabetic that I learned was best for me, most of those are things I can’t have anymore like cheese, and another one is tomatoes.”
Kidney disease turns normally healthy foods such as tomatoes, potatoes and bananas into health risks because of their potassium content. Failing kidneys can’t remove it from the blood.
Kakegamic travels to Thunder Bay for medical appointments, where she meets with dietitian Holly Freill, and she was relieved to hear that’s who is also picking out the food for the packages that are being sent north.
Each patient provides feedback on the packages they receive to improve the next monthly shipment.
“As soon as we get the system going, this is where you can mention to me, Gary, I don’t eat this because of salt, or I don’t like the taste of that,” Manoakeesic told Kakegamic during his visit.
“Remember this is just the first one and we can fix it up as the months go,” he said. “This is one of many you’ll get.”
A research partnership with Lakehead University’s Rebecca Schiff, who is studying the impact of more nutritious foods on the health of people with kidney disease, provides nearly $ 38,000 in funding, which is nearly doubled by in-kind contributions to the project, according to Schiff.
The funding from the Northern Ontario Academic Medical Association was intended to jump start the project, Schiff said. By August, the food hamper program is expected to be self-sustaining and the researchers can set to work digging into the data it provides.
People with kidney disease in other First Nations in the region — Pikangikum, Eabametoong and Kasabonika — are also receiving the specialized food hampers.