Hydroponics for food security in the North

Posted on:

This article was originally shared on the McConnell Foundation blog and has been re-posted with the Foundation's and authors' permission.

By Elvira Truglia

As the northern ice breaks this summer, two retrofitted shipping containers are arriving in Iqaluit, where they will be repurposed as vessels for growing plants in water. The hydroponics project, called The Growcer, aims to help address food insecurity, and will be the first project of its kind in the city. It’s part of what’s called the Northern Innovation Hub, which last year won first place in the Civic Innovation Awards, a competition to promote university-city collaboration, funded and organized by the McConnell initiatives Cities for People and RECODE.

“It won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Corey Ellis, Vice President of Development of the University of Ottawa chapter of Enactus, that has led the work on The Growcer. “We’re hoping that these systems can help communities have improved access to fresh produce with a longer shelf life — bringing down the price of certain foods while also being a source of local food that isn’t dependent on the weather and food shipments.”

Nearly 70 percent of Inuit households in Nunavut are food insecure — more than eight times higher than the national average and “among the highest documented food insecurity rates for an Indigenous population in a developed country.”  Inuit Health Survey, cited by the Nunavut Food Security Action Plan, 2014.

The Plan notes that complex issues like food security need complex solutions. Factors such as food availability (enough wildlife on the land, groceries in the store), accessibility (enough money for hunting equipment or store-bought food), quality (healthy food that is culturally valued, and use (knowledge on how to obtain, store, prepare and consume food)

Technology as the enabler

Hydroponics is a tried and true technology. The particular innovation of The Growcer is using it in the North via shipping containers repurposed into modular farms. Plants get the same nutrients that they would find in soil, and it’s all natural. No herbicides or insecticides are used.

“We are growing food in an environment that is really dense,” explains Ellis. “As a result, we can grow about 9,300 pounds of produce a year in a shipping container and we’re using 91% less water than a traditional farm would with soil agriculture, and doing so in temperatures as cool as -52 degrees.”


Photos of systems deployed by The Growcer’s American affiliates, Vertical Harvest, in remote parts of Alaska

A head of lettuce can be grown for about $2 and the hydroponic units can produce about 750 heads of lettuce in a week. At any one time, Ellis says there will be about 2,100 live plants in the units. He believes the potential for introducing fresh, locally grown produce in Iqaluit is enormous.

Enactus aims to reduce food costs by 30%, while beating the cost of imported food, which is often subsidized by up to 50%. Yet, the social enterprise is not taking anything for granted and wants to measure the impact of access to food. It will be looking at to what extent local produce availability increases consumption of fresh foods, how produce merchandising in stores affects purchasing habits, and whether the integration of produce with traditional meals also help people prepare produce.

Local organizations on board with Northern Innovation Hub

Enactus is trying to create a sustained impact by working closely with local organizations. Partnering with ilinniapaa campus, a learning and employment company, has been key. Enactus brings its entrepreneurial know-how, while ilinniapaa keeps the project grounded in local realities.

“Probably the biggest awakening for anybody coming from the South to the North and wanting to deliver programs is that everything here pretty much requires double the time,” says Helen Roos, President, Lead Facilitator of ilinnipaa. “[Time] not only to build relationships and trust, but once you have program incumbents, working with them on their terms and on their level.”

Co-founders of The Growcer, Corey Ellis and Alida Burke

Partnering with ilinniapaa means Enactus will have a physical space, with computers, Internet access, and a meeting space, all which are very scarce in the North. llinniapaa’s knowledge of the community also gives the project its social legitimacy.

“In some cases for Enactus, we’ve been their local consultants and advisors to train them on some of the local social realities and socio-economic realities,” says Roos who also stresses that community development is challenging because “intergenerational trauma from federal policies and relocation has impacted Indigenous populations’ daily lives.”

Training Enactus’s members includes learning about safe talk, suicide alertness, mental health, first aid, supporting learners through addictions, family-related or other local issues that impact learning and progress in their programs.

“We look at entrepreneurial opportunities as a real opportunity for people to find a niche, fill a niche, be more self-determining, and contribute to the community,” says Roos.

The Growcer project seems to check off all these boxes. A major project partner is the Nunavummi Disabilities Makinnasuaqttit Society (NDMS), an organization serving people with disabilities. As part of the start-up-phase, Enactus will provide produce at-cost to help get the Society off the ground and will also offer on-the-job training for the society’s members.

Evolution of the Northern Innovation Hub

The Growcer is one of the first and most advanced ideas to come out of the Northern Innovation Hub, conceived as a “one-stop shop for innovative ideas to be incubated, created and then launched in the city,” says Ellis. Ideas generated in the Hub seek to tackle problems and opportunities related to housing, employment, business, and food security.

Roos is optimistic about the Innovation Hub. She says projects that provide an investment back into the community are what work in the North. “They are compatible with Inuit social values that are all about what is the individual`s role and purpose, how is it going to benefit the family; and the family supports the community.”

Whereas big business are seen as coming in to take local resources and funnel profits to the South, “social enterprise, and innovative approaches like the hydroponic greenhouse allows business to be smaller and seen as for the community,” says Roos.

“The technology was always a means to an end. That’s why even today, we’re not limiting ourselves to hydroponics or food production either— we’re defining ourselves by the problems we’re trying to solve, not how we solve them,” says Ellis.

Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based journalist who writes about the intersections of culture, politics, and social issues. She has also worked in the community, media and cultural sector as well as national and international non-governmental organizations.




This article is free for republication with attribution by non-profits and foundations. Copyright has been retained by the author. Find out more or contact the McConnell Foundation: communications@mcconnellfoundation.ca

Lead image of the official flag of Nunavut, flying outside Iqaluit, courtesy of Enactus. 

More than just fast food: the São Paulo lunch counter (a photo essay)

Posted on:

Through the lens of a new location (2 of 2)

Text by Todd Lester
Photographs by Pedro Marques

In Part I of this blog, I wrote about the making of the project Lanchonete.org in my new city in Brazil. In São Paulo, lunch counters, or lanchonetes, are as ubiquitous as bodegas in New York City and café-tabacs in Paris. These are utilitarian, convenient, open storefronts, usually with a few plastic tables and chairs spilling out on the sidewalk, where customers can sit at the counter for a quick and cheap hot meal, or buy their phone cards and lottery tickets. In dense areas of the city, there may be five lunch counters at one single intersection, with their sidewalk patrons often mixing indiscriminately. However, a person’s lanchonete of choice is determined by its location, speed of service, and perhaps the distinct flavor of its feijoada (a traditional Brazilian stew served on Wednesdays and Saturdays). It is in the lanchonete where a broad cross-section of Brazilian society literally rubs shoulders. This is especially true in the dense area of São Paulo’s Center.

At one point in the planning of Lanchonete.org, I found that I was having a hard time explaining to non-Brazilians the significance of the lanchonete. Therefore, I invited local photographer Pedro Marques to walk with me through the city and, together, capture the essence—and particularities—of the typical lanchonete … in all shapes in sizes. What follows are photos from that day.







_MG_9057Frutomar copy





_MG_9091Rua Prado_2

The view from São Paulo: Art & Urban Foodways

Posted on:

Through the lens of a new location  (1 of 2)

By Todd Lester

I have just moved from Brooklyn, New York City to the Center (Centro) of São Paulo in order to realize the next stage of Lanchonete.org, a project I initiated that focuses on daily life in the city’s center and takes the form of a traditional lunch counter (or lanchonete). While the project is a lot about ‘looking’ and observing the ways people join together to claim their rights to a city, there are also the more basic reflections one has when they change their location and start to see things through the perspectives of a new city … and its citizens.

_MG_8878_2-166 Rocha

Image of a São Paulo lanchonete by Pedro Marques

As you might imagine, I’ve been thinking about food systems a lot since starting the Lanchonete.org project in São Paolo these past years. In the same period, a steady stream of stimuli started coming my way. A friend recently told me about the international peasants’ movement La Via Campesina and its Food Sovereignty Principles. And more than a year ago, the Vera List Center for Art & Politics presented programming entitled Your Food Is On Its Way. The project focused—in part—on food delivery workers in New York City and how online aggregating services, such as Seamless, can result in longer delivery routes by offering the customer more options yet do not encourage higher tips to the delivery person. So whereas the customer perceives improved services, the delivery people, often informal, immigrant laborers, suffer lower earnings. At the end of this blog, you’ll find a list of resources related to food systems that includes many more projects, organizations, and articles that I’ve come across over the past few years.

One of my first observations from the past few weeks in São Paulo is how active citizen groups, artists, and independent journalists are on issues ranging from the future of the Presidente Costa e Silva Viaduct to the Augusta Park battle to the broad issues of urban development and rights to the city through initiatives such as Arquitetura da Gentrificação and Cidades para Pessoas (Cities for People). The scene that this article, titled Reclaiming the Jungle, attempts to capture is the community setting in which our collective project begins to materialize. Lanchonete.org is the evolving result of both my artistic practice—one that is research-based and curious about organizational form—and a process of community organizing by a group of diverse stakeholders, that includes artists yet not as a majority. This dual persona is what makes Lanchonete.org such a dynamic process, and I actually love how it doesn’t have to be understood as art by everyone who encounters it.

When I’m asked how Lanchonete.org is art by a curator, I often feel like it’s a test to see whether I’ll reference Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD, a restaurant the artist/ architect and colleagues started in lower Manhattan in the 1970s. Sometimes I start my response with what differentiates Lanchonete.org from FOOD, or share the variety of influences—from French cooperative bistros to Welsh pubs, from Fast & French in Charleston, South Carolina made by artists JEMAGWGA to the 70s Lanchonarte project by Brazilian collective Equipe 3—that inform and inspire the making of Lanchonete.org. When folks from outside the art world ask the same question, I’m excited … excited to share these examples but also because the project’s personality and aspirations reach into a range of spaces and co-mingle with everyday life. While we are making the container, what happens in that space, and on the broader platform, can be authored by anyone, artist or not.

Given the topic of urban foodways, nature, and green spaces, I immediately think of the city’s urban sprawl and congestion, and how innovation springs from isolation. For example, Cities Without Hunger, an urban gardening initiative situated in the east part of the city, accesses available green space (under the power lines) held by the municipal electric company, EletroPaulo, in order to build stronger livelihoods among the community members. The ‘east zone’, as it is called, is a portion of the city’s periphery where unemployment rates are the highest. Given the reality and perceptions held of this area, it is not a place that many people go if they don’t have to, even if there is a lot to learn from the work of Cities Without Hunger. One of the goals of the Lanchonete.org project is to shine a light on such innovative projects and learn from them simultaneously. Over the first two years of the project, our focus is on developing strong partnerships from key sectors and populations, which we feel are foundational. Another example is GastroMotiva, which trains youth from similar backgrounds as those in the ‘east zone’ to cook and become chefs in professional kitchens.

Cities wo hunger

Image courtesy of Cities Without Hunger







Cities Without Hunger teaches households how to grow produce in urban conditions, providing both a healthy diet and income-generating opportunities. It shares a very similar ethos with GastroMotiva: to improve food preparation and dietary habits at the household level which, in turn, leads to employment opportunities and holistic betterment in families, communities, neighborhoods, business, and the city. We plan to purchase our produce from Cities Without Hunger and hire our restaurant staff from the ranks of GastroMotiva trainees.


Image courtesy of Gastromotiva

The eminent local philosopher and founder of arte/cidade Nelson Brissac Peixoto says that “São Paulo is not anymore a pedestrian city.” However, I believe that mega-cities such as São Paulo are in dialogue with cities in North America—through the human mobility flows that spread families and other relations between different places and offer many lessons from which our cities can learn and benefit.

In Part II of this blog, I’ll show some images of the typical lanchonete (lunch counter) in São Paulo.



Projects by and with Artists
- El Matam El Mish-masery (El restaurante no egipcio) (by Asunción Molinos Gordo).
- Vacant Acres Symposium (Meeting of land transformation advocates from all over the world by 596Acres)
- Taste of Freedom (by Felipe Cidade @ Art in Odd Places)
- El Internacional & Food Cultura Foundation (by Miralda)
- Acarajé + Gravura (by Thiago Goncalves)
- Doris Criolla (by Amilcar Packer)
- Foodshed (by Smack Mellon)
- Eat Art (by Daniel Spoerri)
- Urban Gardening (in Aesthetics of Protest)

Places / Place Concepts
- Bethlehem XXX (Montreal)
- White Dog Café (Philadelphia)
- Nowhere Kitchen (Berlin)
- Conflict Kitchen (Pittsburgh)
- The Sunview (New York City)
- Café Reconcile (New Orleans)

Canada Resource Guide
- Plant Adoption, a project that relocated city plants from areas with a wealth of fauna to poorer neighbourhoods that are often neglected by the city (by Golboo Amani).
- Poster-Pocket Plants, a project that integrates nature into the urban setting by creating pockets in existing posters throughout the city to create spaces for plants to grow (by Shawn Martindale in collaboration with landscape architect named Eric Cheung).
- Outside the Planter Boxes, a project that focuses on transforming crumbling city planter boxes (by Shawn Martindale).
- A Campus Food Revolution at the University of Guelph (in edible TORONTO)
- Cities Feed Cities: Unearthing three unique urban agriculture projects in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver (in SPACING)
- Local Food Map – Guelph Wellington (tastereal.ca)

NYC Resource Guide
- Delivery City: New York and its working cyclists (film)
- Chinese Staff and Workers Association
- National Mobilization Against Sweatshops
- New York Communities for Change
- Restaurant Opportunities Center
- Fast Food Forward

Brazil Resource Guide
- Guia san Pablo
- Fechado Para Jantar
- Cidade sem Fome
- GastroMotiva
- Instituto Polis (food security policies)
- Green My Favela
- Cidades para Pessoas
- Cidades para Que(m)? discusses Parque Augusta

Misc / Projects / Organizations / Initiatives / Articles
- Sustainable Food Systems (Topos Partnership)
- Street Vendor Project (Urban Justice Center)
- Pesticide Action Network of North America
- Sustainable Development Institute (Liberia)
- World Botanical Research Associates
- Politics of Food (by Delfina Foundation)
- Organic Consumer’s Association
- SEED: The Untold Story (film)
- Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance
- Hudson Valley Seed Library
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Center for Food Safety
- Iroquois Valley Farm
- Inspiration Kitchens
- Change Food
- Slow Food

Todd Lanier Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He has worked in leadership, advocacy and strategic planning roles at Global Arts Corps, Reporters sans frontiers, and Astraea Lesbian Justice Foundation. He founded freeDimensional and Lanchonete.org—a new project focused on daily life in the center of São Paulo. Todd is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute; a co-curator for the Arts & Society Team of Cities for People in Canada; and serves on the board of arts, rights and literary organizations in India, Mexico, Brazil and the US.