STONEY NAKODA— Breeding food security and the passing of traditional knowledge, Stoney Health Services' Project Tichachan is bringing chicken coops to local residents.
The Chicken Coop program is centred on the idea of improving the food system in the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, said dietitian Paige Thomsen.
“This chicken project came out of talking to people in the community, based off of elders saying, ‘I remember when I used to have chickens,’ and really wanting to bring that back," she said.
Project Tichachan is centred on the concept of food sovereignty and is designed to build independence in the community when it comes to food. Thomsen said, the need for reliable food sources within the Nation was only heightened by COVID-19.
“If something was to happen with COVID and it really disrupted all the distribution chains … The fact that Stoney Nakoda could still run and still be completely independent— They could have a sustainable source of protein and vitamins and nutrition from these chickens,” Thomsen said. “It’s building access— They are growing their own food and producing their own food.”
Project Tichachan is in its second year. It was first created by Stoney Health dietitians Mayra Regan and Lindsay MacCharles.
As part of their vision, a major goal was providing better access to food while potentially helping people become entrepreneurs in the community through the sale of eggs.
The project has many built-in pillars of success including food access, economic development, building skills, education and others. These goals have been informed through community consultations that indicated chickens were a needed commodity in the Nation.
“A lot of it has been related to the kids and getting the kids involved,” Thomsen said. “Them seeing a bigger connection to where their food is from it’s a little bit more intimate. It’s the next step of getting them into cooking."
The chickens get youth outside and active while helping them learn responsibility in a fun way. Thomsen said they learn to care about something outside themselves and complete chores like cleaning the coop because they care about the animals.
A total of 13 coops were made and delivered to participating families in 2020, along with 95 chickens. This year the project incorporated an additional eight chicken coops and provided 75 chickens to families.
The coops for the project were designed and built by local shop teacher Lawson Harvey at the high school, with help from students and health promoters.
Each Project Tichachan participant received around five chickens and funding for the feed and shavings for the birds for the first year.
Thomsen said Stoney Health is hoping to help grow the program and are exploring the possibility of helping families who participated in the chicken project expand the livestock they care for.
“Almost every single participant is ready— They want a rooster. They are ready for the next thing,” Thomsen said with a grin. “They have been successful and want to tackle something new. The project brings a lot of momentum.”
Chicken farmer Donna Eddison first learned about the project from her nephew TJ Powder and immediately got to work creating an indoor/outdoor coop to house the poultry.
Her self-described "Chicken Mansion" is home to 15 chickens that moved into the home at the beginning of April at the tender age of 19-weeks.
Her sons are in charge of feeding the chickens and also check each day for freshly laid eggs.
It has been a fun endeavour to embark on, she said, and she appreciates the responsibility it teaches her children while allowing them to have fun.
“They [chickens] eat a lot and when they are hungry, they squawk super loud. When they hear the door [of the coop] open, you can just hear them,” Eddison said. “They move in a group. When I open the door, they are in a perfect little line-up. They’re so coordinated— They’re always together. They're either all outside or all inside.”
Eddison has no previous experience raising chickens, but said the program proved to be accessible and easy to learn.
“It’s super easy. You feed the chickens, you clean up their pen, you show them love, you show the kids how to care for them and they’re happy,” Eddison said.
She appreciates how the chickens have helped youth in the Nation better understand where their food comes from.
“We lost that cultural aspect of growing and having our own food,” Eddison said. “When we got these chickens. My granddaughters came over to see the eggs and they were just [amazed]— They get to learn to appreciate more where their food comes from."
It has been amazing to see the chickens grow and get comfortable in their new home, Eddison said, and she can already see a difference in the size and quality of eggs they produce as they have matured.
The chickens lay about 12 to 16 eggs a day, including some eggs with double yokes.
Eddison hands out the eggs to her friends, neighbours and community members. Her husband has also been selling the eggs at his work.
“The fact that Donna is sharing them with a bunch of people in Rabbit Lake is beautiful. Because now everybody around the Rabbit Lake area can know where to get some eggs, and if she wants to sell them to people that are coming to her they can,” Thomsen said.
Stoney Health Services Chief Executive Director Aaron Khan said food sovereignty is an important practice in Stoney Nakoda and embraces the traditions of the community.
“I know we are very close to Calgary, Canmore and Cochrane, but still we are very isolated in terms of the need for transport,” Khan said. “Transportation is a huge issue."
This is where programs like the Chicken Coops and many other Stoney Health Services programs come into play, because they help make access to food easier and support positive health in the community.
He described Project Tichachan as a holistic program that spans education, food, traditional knowledge and animal rearing.
The pilot project quickly found success with families and offered a positive hobby for youth that supports learning and mental health.
Khan said dietitians worked hard to consult with community members and chicken experts to ensure families were able to begin rearing chickens.
The program has grown in popularity and word has quickly spread in the Nations and neighbouring communities. Khan said Big Horn First Nation, located west of Rocky Mountain House, has also picked up the project.
“The kids love it. The families love it. It’s good for mental health— It’s a very positive project and we’ve been happy to see the outcome there,” Khan said.
Another key aspect is the passing of knowledge from elders to young people. As part of these initiatives a commercial community kitchen has been built can be used to create food for local events, offer cooking classes to youth and serve as an area for elders to share traditional ways of hunting and cooking.
“A commercial kitchen is a place where we want to bring our knowledge keepers along with our youth so they can transfer the knowledge to the younger generation,” Khan said. “It’s a place for the community to come and sit and enjoy good food.”