“Food is Medicine” Healthy Eating Challenge Community Spotlight: Heiltsuk Nation


The FNHA "Food is Medicine" 31-day Healthy Eating Challenge wraps up this week and Dr. Evan Adams, FNHA's Chief Medical Officer and Dr. Shannon MacDonald, FNHA's Deputy Chief Medical Officer would like to showcase the good work that has been done (and continues) in communities around healthy eating and wellness initiatives. In this post, we share Heiltsuk First Nation's story.

Heiltsuk Nation is in Bella Bella on Campbell Island, located on the Central Coast, between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert. This remote location is accessible only by plane or boat, with limited flights in the winter months. Freight loaded with goods such as fresh produce are shipped in just once a week, which can raise challenges in terms of food security and healthy eating. Known for its great hospitality and for being welcoming, this community of approximately 1,300 has decided to face these challenges head on by developing an impressive roster of healthy eating and wellness initiatives.

Meal sharing gatherings create educational and social opportunities  

Once a month, the Elders' building in Heiltsuk Nation is bustling with activity and the invigorating smell of roasting vegetables fills the air. Healthy Lunch Day, a gathering open to the whole community, is the reason for the flurry of activity.

Cassandra Wilson, Diabetes Prevention Worker for Hailika'as Heiltsuk Health Centre Society, championed Healthy Lunch day, a potluck style gathering that began six months ago. She recounts how quickly it has flourished.

"When we started this back in August there were maybe six or seven of us in a small room. By December, the Elders' building was filling up. I am happy to say that this pattern of growth continues," says Cassandra.

During these lunches, community members – from toddlers to Elders – feast on foods such as cauliflower mac and cheese, lettuce wraps, stuffed peppers and stir-fry, to name just a few! This gathering creates a social setting to start conversations around food, share recipes and knowledge.

Covering the basics and building confidence around healthy food choices

Curiosity, and an interest in building confidence around food and cooking, drives folks to these types of gathering. Cassandra can often be found leading groups and school classes through the community grocery store. Groups learn how to read labels, what to buy in the absence of fresh whole foods and what to buy based on their individual needs.

"It's great to watch people become more confident. They take pride in cooking and sharing healthy food, and want to lead others to do that same," says Cassandra. "We do a fun shop together and folks can use these goods and tips to prepare meals to share on Healthy Lunch day and at other community or family gatherings," she continues. "It's all connected."

Garden Tours

In the summer months, garden tours are offered. The groups gather vegetables from local gardens, such as fresh greens, tomatoes and herbs. The tours – part of a walking group wellness initiative – encourage and teaches people to grow their own food. The tours are available to all community members and can be requested through the health centre.

Diabetes Wellness Workshop – a holistic approach

One of the more comprehensive initiatives offered by Heiltsuk Nation is the Diabetes Wellness Workshop. Cassandra joins two other facilitators from the Hailika'as Health Centre Society – Glenda Phillips, Chronic Conditions Nurse and Frances Weick, Dietician – as they lead attendees in 'cooking their way through' the two-day workshop. Cassandra takes the group through healthy meal preparation step by step while Glenda and Frances provide important diabetes prevention and management information. Frances steers the group away from the usual 'diabetic meal planning' and uses a more Paleo approach, reflected in Cassandra's wonderful meal ideas.

"People are always amazed that they leave the table satisfied, not having had any rice or bread," says Frances.

In addition to cooking and diabetes management discussions, Frances introduces Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as 'tapping,' to help address individual and group' emotional barriers to better self-care. EFT uses finger tip tapping to apply pressure to meridian points – areas on the body that energy flows through to reduce stress or negative emotions.

"The [diabetes] framework was developed using Hailika'as Heiltsuk Health Centre's Diabetes Assessment resource, which focuses on the full health journey," explains Glenda. "The workshop uses a holistic approach and doesn't just focus on a diagnosis."

The workshop is hosted in the health centre lunchroom. Small groups of six to eight allow for a 'kitchen table conversation' facilitation style. Glenda noted the groups are highly interactive and engaged.

"We pride ourselves on creating a culturally and emotionally safe environment for our attendees," says Glenda. "Everyone really gets to know each other. Following a flexible course outline, we give necessary information as points come up in a comfortable and free flowing conversation around the table."

Doctors and pharmacists have also been known to drop in and give presentations regarding medications and answer any questions or concerns the group has.

Community appreciation

Heiltsuk Nation's diabetes program is very well received and respected in the community. Glenda acknowledges Maxwell Johnson Sr., a Heiltusk artist who designed a logo for the program. He called it "Taking Diabetes to Heart".


Cassandra, Glenda and Frances convey pride in the community's ability to come together and think outside of the box for new ways to inspire and motivate each other towards wellness.

"We also believe everyone is a wellness champion and we are proud to be a part of a group working towards health and wellness. We are excited to see what comes next."

Do you have a community wellness initiative you would like to share? Let us know at media@fnha.ca