New delivery van will help Churchill garden project get greens to the north, co-ordinator says

A food-growing initiative in northern Manitoba will now have an easier time delivering fresh greens to people in Churchill, thanks to the hydroponic garden project's new delivery van.

Hydroponic garden project has already delivered more than 60,000 units of fresh vegetables to Manitoba town

Carley Basler is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre's sustainability co-ordinator. Basler says the new delivery vehicle the centre just got will make a huge difference for its Rocket Greens program. (Warren Kay/CBC)

A food-growing initiative in northern Manitoba just got a boost that will make it easier to deliver fresh greens to people in the community.

The new van for the Churchill Northern Studies Centre's Rocket Greens project is a much-needed addition, given how fast the program is growing, says the non-profit centre's sustainability co-ordinator.

Since starting about four years ago, it's delivered more than 60,000 units of fresh vegetables to the northern town, Carley Basler said.

Under the Rocket Greens project, fresh greens are grown in a shipping container outfitted with hydroponic equipment. It's an effort to improve food security in the town, which is about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, as the crow flies, on the shore of the Hudson Bay.

There are up to 400 harvested items to deliver every week to people signed up for the project's subscription service, called the Launch Box, along with the town's two grocery stores, the hospital's cafeteria and seasonal lodges around tourism season, Basler said.

Until now, those roughly 30-kilometre journeys from the Northern Studies Centre to the town have been made using different vehicles from the centre's aging fleet. Some of those are drafty and cold, and some have doors that don't work, Basler said. 

"The driving conditions, and the inclement weather and the cold temperatures, it's very hard on vehicles and it's hard on us," she told Marjorie Dowhos, host of CBC's Radio Noon.

"So to have a brand-new van specifically designated for Rocket Greens deliveries is exciting."

The vegetables and herbs they grow make up a wide variety that aren't often seen in the subarctic climate, including lettuce, kale, bok choy, collard greens, arugula, basil and mint, she said.

Since its inception, the program has seen a steady subscriber base of between 40 and 50 people — not bad for a town of just under 900, Basler said.

"Those little statistics, they sort of speak for themselves," she said.

"We're still gardening four years later and harvesting these pieces of produce each week and delivering them to town.… They fly off the shelves, and our subscribers seem happy."

Fiona Rettie agrees. The centre's sustainability technician said the project is also an exciting way to connect with people in the community on an important issue.

"It's been pretty incredible since I started a year ago," Rettie said.

"Having this opportunity to kind of be involved with our community and connect on this level of …  moving towards food sovereignty, it's just really, really special to me."

Moms make long journey with van

The story of how the centre's new delivery van got to the community is special, too.

After being built specifically for the centre, the vehicle needed to be transported from Winnipeg to Churchill. Since they were already paying for the gas to ship it to the community, Rettie said she and Basler decided to get their moms to help pack it with supplies.

The two women, who both live in Winnipeg, quickly hit it off, Rettie said.

"Within a couple of minutes [of meeting], the two of them had sent me a picture of themselves with the new van and just looked as though they've known each other for years," she said.

All along the trip to Churchill together — about a 760-kilometre drive, followed by a 550-kilometre train ride — Rettie's mom, Jo-Anne, a botanist herself, and Basler's mom, Linda, sent pictures as they reached different landmarks. Rettie posted the photos on the Rocket Greens social media channels.

It was a bright spot during a tough time for the community, she said.

"Everyone was just so receptive. Our community was going through kind of a hard time with really our first serious bout of COVID. And everyone was just … really taken with this journey of our moms coming up," Rettie said. 

"There were dozens of people sending them wishes on Facebook and Instagram, and when they arrived in town, they just felt so welcomed by our community."

With files from Marjorie Dowhos