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Making fresh produce a reality

Alida Burke and Corey Ellis in Iqaluit in February.
Alida Burke and Corey Ellis in Iqaluit in February.

Food security is an issue that plagues northern communities and a group from Ottawa is trying to make it less of an issue, with some local help.

Corey Ellis is with The Growcer, a social enterprise that was borne out of the University of Ottawa’s Enactus group.

“Essentially, what we’ve been working on is a project in which we developed a system that can grow food within arctic conditions,” he told TC. “We’ve been using hydroponic technology, which is common and widely seen but what we’ve done is essentially a shipping container that can grow up to four tonnes of produce in -52 degrees Celsius.”

Ellis said they built the system in conjunction with a company out of Alaska, where they also tested it. Now they’re looking to expand it into as other areas, including Nunavut and Labrador.

“At this point, we’re looking to get it into as many communities as possible and alleviate the food security issues as much as we can, especially in Northern and Arctic communities where the cost of food is three or four times what it is in the south,” he said.

He said food security is a more complex issue than simply having the produce, is also touches upon how people learn about food, cook with their food, and what else is available to them to have a nutritious meal.

“What we’re doing on top of the system we’re developing some recipes, working with some nutritionists in Nunavut,” he said. “We’re developing recipes inspired by Inuit traditional dishes using traditional ingredients that include and incorporate produce that people grow with our system.”

They hope to add a dry pack of ingredients to complete the recipes, to make it easier for people and more affordable for families to cook for themselves. He said essentially a customer would walk into the store, buy a dry ingredient pack, have the produce form the system, and then add protein, country foods or an alternative.

What they’re looking for now is local people to run the units, to make it locally led.

“The hope is that it’s the local communities that will do this,” he said. “What we do is facilitate the whole process. Originally, we were hoping to operate these manually, train a few local people on how to do this. But it really wasn’t working for us, it wasn’t the best project is could be if it wasn’t locally led. So that’s where our whole model shifted to enabling the local community to do it themselves.”

He said the way it works is a community asks for the system, they manufacture it and ship it out. Then they train people on how to do the technical operation of the system and troubleshooting. In addition, they help the operators with the business side of the project.

“We show them how to do books, how to determine what the best prices are to sell the produce to grocery stores,” Ellis said. “We walk them through the whole process.”

The group has been working in Nunavut for the last few years, which deal with the same issues that Labrador does in terms of food security, such as produce arriving already wilted and prohibitively expensive.

He said that issue has been tackled with the system, and they’re hoping to use the recipes and dry ingredient packs to deal with another issue, what to cook with the vegetables grown. The system can grow 21 different types of crops, some of which may not be familiar to those in Northern communities.

He said local involvement is key in moving this forward.

“This is really their project. If they want to do this and see value in it, we want to help them but we’re not going to force it on anyone. We’re not going to show up and say it’s done. We want local people to say it’s important to them and to make it happen. The whole thing about food security is that people can decide for themselves what they want to eat and that is entirely up to them.”

The system takes about 10 hours a week to operate, from cleaning to maintenance to harvesting. For more information email info@thegrowcer.ca

Corey Ellis is with The Growcer, a social enterprise that was borne out of the University of Ottawa’s Enactus group.

“Essentially, what we’ve been working on is a project in which we developed a system that can grow food within arctic conditions,” he told TC. “We’ve been using hydroponic technology, which is common and widely seen but what we’ve done is essentially a shipping container that can grow up to four tonnes of produce in -52 degrees Celsius.”

Ellis said they built the system in conjunction with a company out of Alaska, where they also tested it. Now they’re looking to expand it into as other areas, including Nunavut and Labrador.

“At this point, we’re looking to get it into as many communities as possible and alleviate the food security issues as much as we can, especially in Northern and Arctic communities where the cost of food is three or four times what it is in the south,” he said.

He said food security is a more complex issue than simply having the produce, is also touches upon how people learn about food, cook with their food, and what else is available to them to have a nutritious meal.

“What we’re doing on top of the system we’re developing some recipes, working with some nutritionists in Nunavut,” he said. “We’re developing recipes inspired by Inuit traditional dishes using traditional ingredients that include and incorporate produce that people grow with our system.”

They hope to add a dry pack of ingredients to complete the recipes, to make it easier for people and more affordable for families to cook for themselves. He said essentially a customer would walk into the store, buy a dry ingredient pack, have the produce form the system, and then add protein, country foods or an alternative.

What they’re looking for now is local people to run the units, to make it locally led.

“The hope is that it’s the local communities that will do this,” he said. “What we do is facilitate the whole process. Originally, we were hoping to operate these manually, train a few local people on how to do this. But it really wasn’t working for us, it wasn’t the best project is could be if it wasn’t locally led. So that’s where our whole model shifted to enabling the local community to do it themselves.”

He said the way it works is a community asks for the system, they manufacture it and ship it out. Then they train people on how to do the technical operation of the system and troubleshooting. In addition, they help the operators with the business side of the project.

“We show them how to do books, how to determine what the best prices are to sell the produce to grocery stores,” Ellis said. “We walk them through the whole process.”

The group has been working in Nunavut for the last few years, which deal with the same issues that Labrador does in terms of food security, such as produce arriving already wilted and prohibitively expensive.

He said that issue has been tackled with the system, and they’re hoping to use the recipes and dry ingredient packs to deal with another issue, what to cook with the vegetables grown. The system can grow 21 different types of crops, some of which may not be familiar to those in Northern communities.

He said local involvement is key in moving this forward.

“This is really their project. If they want to do this and see value in it, we want to help them but we’re not going to force it on anyone. We’re not going to show up and say it’s done. We want local people to say it’s important to them and to make it happen. The whole thing about food security is that people can decide for themselves what they want to eat and that is entirely up to them.”

The system takes about 10 hours a week to operate, from cleaning to maintenance to harvesting. For more information email info@thegrowcer.ca

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