Northern Ontario Health Units

Northern Ontario Health Units

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Access to healthy food   |   Public / Governmental   |   Northern ON

1) Northwestern Health Unit

2) Thunder Bay District Health Unit

3)  Sudbury & District Health Unit

Interviews, Lee-Ann Chevrette

*  Coalitions of Public Health Units and community groups committed to improving human health through more attention to food systems

*  Three separate health units with somewhat different mandates: Northwestern Health Unit strives to improve the quality and length of life in our communities – healthy lifestyles, longer lives lived well; The Sudbury & District Health Unit (SDHU) is a public health agency committed to improving health and reducing social inequities in health through evidence-informed practice; Thunder Bay Food Action Network whose goals are to create awareness, support food projects, promote local food, advocate for policies that support community food security, and act as an information centre for community food security



Health Units in northern Ontario play a significant role in the development and support of local food system initiatives within their communities, districts and regions in northern Ontario. It appears that they face numerous and similar challenges and opportunities, and provide significant resources to building community food security.

This case study explores the efforts of three distinct health units in northern Ontario. These include: the Northwestern Health Unit, the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, and the Sudbury & District Health Unit; these three Health Units serve northwestern and northeastern Ontario. It should be noted that four additional northern Ontario Health Units, namely the Timiskaming Health Unit, the Porcupine Health Unit, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit and the Algoma Public Health Unit share many similar challenges and opportunities to these three included in the case study. In fact, all seven of these northern Ontario Health Units work collaboratively on food security issues through the Northern Healthy Eating Project, an initiative that will be explored in greater detail below.

Although the food system initiatives that each of these Health Units supports may be unique to their particular health unit and reflect the circumstances within its own catchment area, they share numerous similarities in their approaches, and the ways in which these Health Units act as food hubs within their regions. Additionally these Health Units work collaboratively to share resources and information in order to address community food security.

In the following sections, we provide specific details on each of these Health Units we explored, as well as a description of their similarities and collaborative efforts. It is important to note that the mandate of the District Health Units does not extend to the far north communities in northern Ontario.


Organization Overview


Northwestern health unit

The mission of the Northwestern Health Unit is to improve the quality and length of life in our communities – healthy lifestyles, longer lives lived well. The Northwestern Health Unit (originally named the Kenora-Keewatin Area Health Unit) was established in 1948; at that time it served only 6 communities. Today, the Northwestern Health Unit has 13 offices, which serve 19 municipalities and unorganized territories in northwestern Ontario (from Pickle Lake to the American border to the Manitoba border).  Staff involved in this study were contacted in the Sioux Lookout, Kenora, and Dryden and Fort Frances offices.

The number of staff has grown from six in 1948 (with a budget of $25,000) to the present compliment of 119 permanent staff and 33 temporary or contract staff (with a budget of approximately $11.4 million for 2006). The present area of the Health Unit is about 77,700 square kilometers, within a population of about 90,000, which has increased from approximately 12,000 people in 1948.

The degree of involvement of health unit staff in the development of local food systems varies from providing support and planning, and information for funding resources to very hands-on local food initiative support.


Thunder Bay District Health Unit

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit is a non-profit agency funded jointly by the provincial government and the municipalities that they serve. The Health Unit is governed by a Board of Health which is comprised of twelve municipal representatives and three provincial appointees. Their main office is in Thunder Bay, but they have branch offices in Geraldton, Marathon, Manitouwadge, Nipigon and Schreiber.

The Food Action Network (FAN) is a network that brings many groups together to improve access to enough affordable, nutritious, safe, environmentally sustainable food for all.  The Thunder Bay District Health Unit was an original partner back in 1995, when the Food Action Network was created.  The NorWest Community Health Center led the first group meeting; at that time, the initiative was more focussed around emergency food/food banks. A couple of years in, the Thunder Bay District Health Unit took on the chair of the group, because it fit better within its mandate. They have been the clearinghouse and administrative lead on FAN since 1998. The purpose of this group is to create awareness, support food projects, promote local food, advocate for policies that support community food security, and act as an information centre for community food security in the District of Thunder Bay.


The Sudbury & District Health Unit

The Sudbury & District Health Unit (SDHU) is a public health agency committed to improving health and reducing social inequities in health through evidence-informed practice. Their main office is in the City of Greater Sudbury and they have four branch offices throughout the districts of Sudbury and Manitoulin districts.

SDHU has over 250 staff who deliver provincially legislated public health programs and services. SDHU is governed by the Board of Health and has strong community and inter-agency partnerships. SDHU is part of a provincial network of 36 non-profit public health agencies, funded jointly by local and provincial governments. They work with individuals, families, the community and partner agencies to promote and protect health and to prevent disease.

SDHU prepares the annual Sudbury and Manitoulin Districts’ Community Food Security Directory, which serves to increase community food security in the Sudbury & District Health Unit catchment area by:

• linking individuals with food programs and other food resources in their community

• increasing awareness of the healthy community food systems approach and the City of Greater Sudbury (CGS) Food Charter.


Human Resources

Northwestern Health Unit

The Public Health Dietitians, Public Health Nutritionists and Public Health Educators have the greatest involvement in local food security initiatives within the Health Unit. There are two

Public Health Nutritionists within this district; they provide support and planning to food system initiatives across their region.


Thunder Bay District Health Unit/FAN

FAN has one paid staff person, Catherine Schwartz-Mendez, who acts as Chair, and provides support and planning to a diverse number of local food initiatives that are affiliated with FAN. They also have a summer student, and have other Health Unit staff that provides administrative and other in-kind support to the network.


The Sudbury & District Health Unit

Lesley Andrade is the Chair of the Northern Healthy Eating Program and a Public Health Nutritionist. The SDHU has 7 Registered Dietitians (2 public health nutritionists and 5 public health dietitians).


Financial Resources

All three Health Units receive provincial and municipal funding support. They also apply for additional external funding for projects and have been successful in receiving funding from such funding bodies as OMIF, Futures, and PACE.



There are numerous programs which have been initiated across northern Ontario with the assistance of staff and resources from the Health Units. Some of these are listed below; additional details on each initiative are provided in the original interviews.


Northwestern Health Unit

  • Healthy Living Food Box (Kenora)
  • Clover Valley Food Box (Fort Frances)
  • Rainy River Valley Food For All-Rainy River District
  • Apple Core (Atikokan) (group)
  • Farmers Markets in Kenora, Dryden/Oxdrift, Fort Frances, Sioux Lookout
  • Locavore Box (Dryden)
  • Community Gardens
  • Nutritious Food Basket


Thunder Bay District Health Unit/FAN

  • Good Food Box
  • Thunder Bay Food Charter
  • Community Garden Collective
  • Get Fresh Guide (local producers’ Directory
  • Nutritious Food Basket
  • School nutrition programs
  • Partnerships with numerous local food initiatives


The Sudbury & District health Unit

  • Sudbury and Manitoulin District’s Community Food Security Directory
  • Sudbury Food Charter
  • Nutritious Food Basket
  • Community Gardens
  • School nutrition programs
  • Partnerships with numerous local food initiatives


Constraints/overcoming them

Many of the barriers relating to the development of local food systems are consistent across these three Health Units. All provide services across large geographic areas. There are significant issues with accessibility to local food, including transportation and distribution barriers. In some northern communities, there are very few (and in some cases no) local producers. This means that the existing local producers typically travel large distances to provide local food to communities in the North. This is in part out of necessity; due to the relatively small populations of these northern communities, there is a need to access additional markets to increase viability and profitability.

Climatic challenges were identified as a significant barrier to developing a local food system; the growing season in the north is relatively short and local fresh produce is available for only a few months per year. Additionally, the agricultural community (i.e. local producers/farmers) is relatively small in the North. There is a significant concern about the loss of farmers and the subsequent loss of agricultural knowledge and skills. Farming is not considered by most as a viable career choice, and it is certainly not promoted as such in the current educational system. A loss of traditional food preservation skills have compounded this, because even if there is an abundance of food grown during the available growing season, few individuals are knowledgeable of methods to preserve these foods for winter use.

Lack of available funding is a significant constraint, as is time availability. Health Unit staff are involved in numerous initiatives and provide whatever assistance they can to support these initiatives; however consistent funding to hire coordinators has been recommended several times as a possible solution.

Policy constraints around local food production were also identified, including the ‘one-size-fits-all’ issue with respect to policy that is written for larger producers. These policies are often create significant barriers and are prohibitive to small local producers.

Consumer education was also identified as a significant barrier to the development of the local food system. There is an expressed need to develop more educational programs that will highlight the many important benefits of supporting the development of a strong local food economy.

Because the health units have enforcement powers/responsibilities, it was identified that there are at times challenges in dealing with local producers, whose efforts they ultimately want to support. Although some government policies may not be entirely applicable or relevant for small producers, it is the Health Unit’s responsibility to uphold these regulations.

It is more relevant in the North to look at a regional food system as opposed to a local food system. Due to geography, climatic, and transportation/distribution barriers, many of the existing local producers travel significant distances to access markets. It is not uncommon for individuals to refer to food that has traveled upwards of 500km from another northern Ontario community as ‘local’.

Lack of both provincial and national food policies were also considered a significant barrier constraining their ability to advocate for change to the current food system model. Such policies would help to increase awareness of what is required and what steps they can take to get there. Positive changes to the education system and to the activities of communities/municipalities would result from such policies.

There is also a significant interest in the North in wild fish, game, and plan harvesting; however there are significant constraints in terms of public health. These issues were not covered in this case study.



There were numerous successes identified through this case study. Aside from their involvement in the development and ongoing support of numerous local food initiatives, their collaboration efforts are also a success.

All seven northern Ontario Health Units collaborate through the Northern Healthy Eating Project. This initiative, which is the result of the merging of two separate networks (the Northern Nutrition Personnel and the old Northern Healthy Eating Program), is a network and sharing collaboration, with a food security and advocacy focus. Registered dieticians from these health units (namely the dieticians) come together three times per year via teleconference to discuss community food security. One face-to-face planning meeting is also scheduled.

In 2010, the group came together and did some strategic planning. They identified that there were unique needs in the north and not as many resources available to individuals. There is a vast geography, and it became apparent that there was a need to pool resources, share knowledge and skills and support each other. The group felt they would have a louder collective voice in advocacy for the north for community food security.


The uniqueness of these Health Units lies perhaps in the large geographic distances that they serve, and their apparent ability to connect with numerous sectors involved in the development of a strong local food system within their respective locales. Particularly in the smaller northern communities, the mandate of these Health Unit offices allows them to play a central role in supporting the efforts of diverse groups and initiatives. They provide staff time, funding and in-kind support, and are often the administrative lead on projects.



The role played by these Health Units in the development of local food systems is significant and appears to be consistent across northern Ontario. They certainly appear to act as food hubs and are often the “go to” organization when it comes to local food security initiatives within their respective communities. Although there are four additional northern Ontario health units (as mentioned above) which were not included as part of this case study, an investigation of their roles as local food hubs would be of interest to the broader picture in northern Ontario food hubs. I suspect that they would play a very similar role (in the development of local food systems) to the three health units included in this case study.



Northwestern Health Unit


They have publications and links to other resources at their website.


Thunder Bay District Health Unit/FAN


They have publications and links to other resources at their website.


The Sudbury & District health Unit


They have numerous publications and links to other resources on their website.

Nutrition Tools for Schools

School Vegetable and Fruit Action Guide, Paint your plate. Create a masterpiece. (Both of these initiatives were collaborations with many health units).


Additional notes:

All of the individuals that I spoke with while conducting this case study identified both a desire and a need for greater knowledge and resource sharing, communication and collaboration among those working in the realm of community food security in northern Ontario. There appears to be a shared experience in the north, with individuals/organizations experiencing similar opportunities and constraints; providing opportunities to share these experiences and learn from one another appears to be a priority. The idea of a ‘Northern Food Network’, which connects these initiatives, was identified on several occasions.

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