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Health sciences grad hopes to bring better food security to the North

Aimee Yurris poses by her vegetable plot at the Yellowknife Community Garden Collective site on Saturday. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Aimee Yurris has returned to Yellowknife with a degree in health sciences, an academic gold medal and a desire to help Northerners develop better food security.

Born and raised in Yellowknife, the recent graduate from the University of Lethbridge came to appreciate the importance of access to food in the North in a roundabout way that picked up steam when she was a student at Sir John Franklin.

“When I was at Sir John I was really into cooking and baking. I joined the Skills Canada Baking Club and it became a big passion. I graduated from Sir John in 2013 and then went to cooking school at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton in 2014-2016. But when I came back here in the summers I learned more about health and food security,” she said.

Aimee Yurris poses by her vegetable plot at the Yellowknife Community Garden Collective site on Saturday. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

One summer, she took some “eye opening” short courses at the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River.

“When I was growing up in Yellowknife I didn't do much gardening and I didn't think we had much capacity to grow food. After going to the institute, I learned different tricks for tailoring our gardens so we can grow food in the north. The institute is trying to motivate people to do more and get out in the garden. I think we have more capacity to grow food than we might assume.”

While Yurris still loves cooking, her path led her away from a chef job as she learned more about Northern food systems, and towards other possibilities that would combine food, society and health.

For her degree at Lethbridge she majored in Indigenous health and minored in population health, the study of health from a group perspective rather than from an individual perspective.

“(It's) looking into different interventions that can benefit the whole community. It's more prevention oriented than treatment oriented,” she said.

She excelled academically, and was awarded at her convocation with the Faculty of Health Sciences Gold Medal for having the highest grade point average in the program.

But her passion couldn't be contained by classroom and laboratory studies.

Last year, for her program's final practicum segment, she started the Lethbridge chapter of Meal Exchange (MX), a student organization seeking the development of a more equitable food system on university campuses.

MX began at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. in 1993 as a way for students to share their unused campus meal plans with other students who might not have enough to eat. Chapters have since sprouted up at campuses across Canada.

Yurris was inspired to open the chapter after she attended a National Student Food Summit at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. last summer, where she was the only representative from Alberta and the NWT.

Yurris explained that MX has since broadened its mandate and now focuses on support for students who advocate for healthier foods on campus and general access to healthy food.

“One event we did in the fall was the Eat Think Vote campaign, a way to encourage voters in Canada to ask their candidates and MPs to do something about food security. This past semester I engaged in conversations with working groups in Lethbridge about that,” she said.

Asked if she would try to open an MX chapter at Aurora College, Yurris said she has thought about it.

“I plan on staying in touch with MX and maybe seeing how we can bring their programming here.”

While her scope is broad for the time being, the area where she sees the greatest need is the high cost of food in the north, especially in remote communities.

Her long-term goal is to stay in the north and do what she can to enhance health and wellness among Northern residents.

Now that she's back in Yellowknife, she plans to focus on her new job with the Student Support and Wellness Division of the territorial government's Department of Education, Culture and Employment. There, she works to support the wellness of NWT students who have complex needs.

“As I was going through my program there were so many specific areas in health sciences and Indigenous health that caught my interest," she said. "Right now my focus is just to get a sense of what it's like to be working in health and seeing where that takes me."

She also plans to focus on her new vegetable plot of the Yellowknife Community Garden Collective.

“I got (the plot) for the first time. It's a way for me to learn more about what it takes to grow food in Yellowknife."