Hydroponics for food security in the North

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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. 

Students bring their talents and skills to community projects through Vancouver’s LEDlab

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Announcing the Civic Innovation Award winners!

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Winning projects showcase the high potential of city-university collaborations

We're excited to announce the winning projects of the inaugural Civic Innovation Awards program. Seven projects from across Canada have been awarded grants of $10K to $30K to showcase innovative collaborations between cities and post-secondary institutions. The awards program, launched last fall as part of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation's RECODE and Cities for People initiatives, attracted 150 applicants.


"The projects selected show real potential to bring about positive change," said Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the McConnell Foundation. "We're delighted with the strength of the applications overall, and very hopeful that collaborations between cities, post-secondary institutions and other civic organizations are going to keep growing in impact and scale."

Jurors were looking for projects that were highly innovative, and defined innovation to mean any "initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system." The prize winners are:

Grand Prize Winner ($30K):

Northern Innovation Hub | Iqaluit, Nunavut

Second Prize Winners ($20K):

Local Economic Development Lab | Vancouver, British Columbia
MR-63 | Montreal, Quebec
Vivacity | Calgary, Alberta

Third Prize Winners ($10K):

Civic Accelerator | Guelph, Ontario
Community BUILD | York Region, Ontario
Building a Virtual Knowledge Commons for Pop-up Shops | Toronto, Ontario

Click here to read full descriptions of the winning projects.

Click here for the press release.

New RECODE-Cities for People Civic Innovation Award to grant up to $50,000 to innovative collaborations

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Cities offer the scale needed for transformative change — large enough to matter, but small enough to manage. Universities and colleges are also civic actors in their own right. They are “cities within cities,” where the principles of pluralism create communities of diversity, open to the world. The relationship between post-secondary institutions and cities can serve as an engine of social and environmental sustainability.As part of its pursuit of a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient society, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has created RECODE, an initiative dedicated to catalyzing social innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education; and Cities for People, which contributes to more resilient, livable and inclusive cities.

RECODE award_with logos

The RECODE / Cities for People Civic Innovation Awards program provides grants to initiatives that position post-secondary institutions as civic actors catalyzing positive change in cities. These grants will support innovative collaborations between post-secondary institutions and community organizations or businesses that strengthen their communities.

This is a call for initiatives, products, processes, or programs that contribute to the knowledge and resources in our post-secondary campuses, community organizations, businesses and local governments. We are looking to challenge and evolve the defining routines, resources, and authority flows in our cities for the greater good.

Up to $100,000 will be awarded in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 to exemplary initiatives that meet the criteria outlined in either of the two relevant themes.

There are two themes for the Civic Innovation Awards:

Theme 1. Innovative Citizenship and Service: Enhancing capacity to engage and take action on community and city issues.

 Examples include:

  • Partnerships between post-secondary institutions and municipal governments or agencies that improve civic engagement.
  • Initiatives that support civic action by students.
  • Multisectoral collaborations that apply our collective capacity (or civic intelligence - see lexicon) to improve social and economic outcomes for marginalized populations.

Theme 2. Enhancing the Civic Commons: Re-purposing our shared city assets through innovative approaches to increase the social, cultural, economic or educational value of the civic commons.

 Examples include:

  • Initiatives that re-design and re-purpose buildings, grounds and other assets in service to the community.
  • Participatory planning and budgeting initiatives that involves municipalities, post-secondary institutions and public input.
  • Technological innovations to make for a more engaging and connected civic commons.

Full information packet: C4P/RECODE Award_EN

Click here to apply