Ottawa students launch hydroponic gardens in Iqaluit schools and beyond

​A University of Ottawa student group has partnered with Iqaluit organizations to improve access to fresh affordable produce in northern communities.

Affordable LEDs stretch the Arctic’s indoor growing season

Sidney Horlick delivers a nutrition workshop developed to work with the tower gardens to a school assembly at Nanook School in Apex on Feb 22. (Enactus uOttawa)

A University of Ottawa student group is partnering with local organizations to improve access to fresh affordable produce in northern communities.

Earlier this month, Enactus set up the Growcer project in Iqaluit with two vertical hydroponic gardens, one each at the Nanook and Joamie elementary schools. They hope to do the same at additional schools in Iqaluit and ultimately other Nunavut communities. 

To go with the towers, Enactus developed a curriculum focused around healthy eating.

These tower gardens were introduced to the community in an information session held at Qayuqtuvik Food Centre on Thursday evening. 

Co-founder of the project Corey Ellis says the evening was meant to introduce people to the concept and the technology. 
A Grade 3/4 class at Joamie Elementary School in Iqaluit participates a workshop run by the Growcer's Project. (Enactus uOttawa)

He says the amount of interest means that the group should be able to coordinate bringing more towers up on the first sealift shipment of the summer for people to garden in their own homes.

From his experience piloting the towers in schools in Ottawa, Ellis expects those who get one at home will have to share with their neighbours.

"We were walking away with three full grocery bags of lettuces every few weeks in Ottawa, for just one tower."

Hydroponics newly viable in North

The hydroponic system grows plants in water.

Nutrients plants would usually find in soil are diluted in water, which flows through the plants' roots and are absorbed.

It's a faster and more efficient way of farming. Ellis says hydroponic systems use 91 per cent less water than traditional growing methods.

Shipping concentrated nutrients to remote communities is also cheaper than other options.
Corey Ellis and Horlick install a hydroponic tower garden at Nanook Elementary School. (Enactus uOttawa)

"It's great for a place like Iqaluit, where soil is really heavy and really expensive and depletes really quickly," Ellis said.

Enough nutrients to supply the elementary school project for six to eight months only weighed a few pounds.

While hydroponics have been used in greenhouses in the South for a long time, they've only become really viable in the North in the last few years because LED technology has become affordable.

These more efficient LED lights means growing food in northern communities finally makes monetary sense.

Growing the scale in a shipping container

So using the same technology, the group is expanding from just towers to a shipping container, which is expected to arrive in Iqaluit on the first sealift shipment of the summer.

People can afford more food, better food, fresher food- Corey Ellis, President of Enactus uOttawa  and cofounder of the Growcer Project

The insulated 12-metre long shipping container is expected to produce around 5,000 kilograms of food in a year.

Since the nutrients used are dried and will last two to three years in storage, they can be shipped up in bulk on the sealift as well.

"Ultimately that translates into lower food costs, and if we can cut costs at every step that means people can afford more food, better food, fresher food," Ellis said. 
Enactus students were in Iqaluit delivering workshops and establishing partnerships for the Growcer Project and other social enterprise projects. Pictured left to right, Sidney Horlick, Corey Ellis, and Holly Todd. (Enactus uOttawa)

Three communities in Manitoba will get these shipping containers before Iqaluit. Their containers are expected to be delivered in the next few weeks. 

When the shipping container comes to town, the group will adapt traditional meals to pair local country foods with their fresh produce.

Ready-to-prepare meal packages will be sold in retail outlets to support the non-profit enterprise.  

With files from Vinnie Karetak

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