Forest and freshwater foods—such as blueberries, mushrooms, tea, wild rice, fiddleheads, medicinal plants and wild fish and game—have been integral to the Northwestern Ontario food system for thousands of years. Aboriginal peoples still possess traditional ecological knowledge that enables them to live off the land. This knowledge of forest and freshwater foods played an essential role in the settlement of European communities when fur traders arrived. Today, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples continue to depend on local forests and freshwater for food; and hunting, fishing and gathering remain an important part of northern culture.
Despite the importance of forest and freshwater foods to our food system, there are a number of challenges to the integrity of this food source. In certain cases, industrial development has negatively impacted fish and wildlife habitats while urban, suburban and rural development encroaches on forests, rivers, and other productive spaces.
Protecting and promoting forest and freshwater food systems can help overall ecosystem health by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving resilience in the face of climate change. The health of forest and freshwater foods systems is also a good indicator of the ecological integrity of ecosystems as a whole. For these reasons, it is imperative to protect boreal forests and watersheds, as these ecosystems are the basis for hunting, fishing and gathering activities.
Nationally and provincially there is increased demand for forest and freshwater foods. In part this is because they are thought to be fresher and healthier than store bought foods. Within Thunder Bay and Area, forest and freshwater foods are harvested in parks, green spaces, and other public and private spaces. Forest and freshwater foods can be found for sale at local farmers’ markets, grocers, restaurants, and road-side vendors.
In terms of commercial opportunities, the Thunder Bay and Area population presents a significant market for commercial producers of forest and freshwater foods, as well as throughout Northwestern Ontario. Seizing this opportunity will be advantageous to ensuring a more resilient food system within the region.