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Greenhouses aim to bring fresh produce to North, putting a dent in food insecurity

INUVIK, N.W.T. — Rows upon rows of raised beds growing tomatoes, zucchini, beans, wildflowers and herbs line the inside of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse.
The Inuvik Community Greenhouse, which was formerly a hockey arena, is seen in Inuvik, N.W.T., Tuesday, July 4, 2023. In December 2022, the federal government announced $19.5 million in support for up to 79 new projects across the country related to food security in Indigenous, remote and northern communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emily Blake

INUVIK, N.W.T. — Rows upon rows of raised beds growing tomatoes, zucchini, beans, wildflowers and herbs line the inside of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse. 

Sunlight streams through the panes of the curved ceiling above as children sprinkle their crop with green plastic watering cans. 

The commercial greenhouse in the western Arctic community in the Northwest Territories is in a former hockey arena. There, community members can rent plots to grow vegetables and other plants, and learn about gardening. 

“Every time I come in here, I only ever see people smiling,” said Adi Scott, who co-ordinates the greenhouse.

Remote and Indigenous communities, particularly in the North, are increasingly using greenhouses to grow their own produce, promote self-sufficiency and in some cases create economic opportunity, said Andrew Spring, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Canada Research Chair in northern sustainable food systems.

“Food security has been an issue across the North because of the high cost of groceries ... (and) the long-term impacts of colonization on northern Indigenous communities,” Spring said. 

Data from Statistics Canada indicates that 46.1 per cent of people in Nunavut, 23.1 per cent in the Northwest Territories and 15.3 per cent in the Yukon lived in food-insecure households in 2019 compared with a national average of 10.6 per cent. 

Much of the food flown North is processed, not to mention expensive, and access to fresh fruits or vegetables is limited, said Spring. Meanwhile, participation in traditional activities like gathering or hunting have been declining for decades in many communities, meaning they rely more on food from stores, he said. 

Climate change “makes a vulnerable situation even more precarious,” said Spring, as it causes disruptions in air travel or on long-used ice roads. 

Scott said the Inuvik greenhouse, which runs from April to September, can help put a dent in the grocery bill, but isn’t enough to truly reduce reliance on food from outside the territory. Instead, the greenhouse’s main focus is on education and community-building. 

These days, it’s not difficult to get the funds to start up a greenhouse in a remote community, said Spring, with lots of federal programs available for agriculture and climate adaptation.

In December 2022, the federal government announced $19.5 million in support for up to 79 new projects across the country related to food security in Indigenous, remote and Northern communities as part of the fourth phase of the Local Food Infrastructure Fund. Since 2019, it  has supported around 900 projects across the country, including greenhouses in remote and northern communities. 

It's important that organizations helping to start up greenhouse and other agriculture projects work with the community, said Raygan Solotki, executive director of Green Iglu. The non-profit helps remote communities plan, build and run projects, specializing in geodesic dome greenhouses. 

“We're not coming in on a horse, riding in with a greenhouse,” said Solotki. “We're here to work with the community to make sure we are doing what the community wants.”

The biggest challenges often come once the greenhouse has been built, Spring said. Some communities have had more success than others building a sustainable long-term greenhouse or garden project, and it often revolves around having one person or a small group of people willing to commit to running it, he said.

“This community champion, who is passionate about it, and who has the kind of skills and the knowledge to do the work. And having those people stay in the community is often the challenge.”

Tom Henheffer, co-chief executive officer of the Arctic Research Foundation, also stressed the importance of building relationships with communities for projects to be successful. 

The foundation partnered with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, National Research Council Canada, the Canadian Space Agency and the community of Gjoa Haven, Nvt., on the Naurvik project, a community-led hydroponic food system that started in 2019. 

“A number of similar projects have failed and what differentiates this is really the people building it from the ground up with the community,” Henheffer said. 

The work in the greenhouse is done by local technicians and its location was chosen by elders, Henheffer said. He added community members know best which vegetables local people want to eat to pair with foods like caribou stew and Arctic char.

Betty Kogvik, one of the technicians at the greenhouse, said it’s important for the community.

“The cost of food or produce we get from the store is really high ...  and when we finally receive them, some are already mouldy.” 

Kogvik said high food costs are especially challenging for elders and people reliant on social assistance. She’s proud that everything grown at the greenhouse goes to elders and children.

The main food sources in the community are hunting and fishing, Kogvik said, and people share what they have harvested with friends and family. 

Kogvik said she’d like to see the greenhouse project extended to other communities, adding it also provides employment opportunities. 

The Naurvik project’s system is made from three retrofitted shipping containers and primarily uses wind and solar power year-round. Many northern communities are reliant on diesel, which can be costly and produce harmful emissions. 

Conditions in Gjoa Haven, about 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, make it difficult to grow vegetables. Access to fresh produce in the community is limited and expensive, Henheffer said, with vegetables nearing expiration by the time they reach shelves. 

He said part of the project aims to replicate the system in other communities to increase access to fresh produce. The Canadian Space Agency is also interested in the technology to potentially grow food in space.

Hydroponics is a higher-tech way of indoor growing that doesn’t use soil, and is often used to grow herbs and leafy greens. Spring noted that in order to truly make a dent in food insecurity, northern growing projects need to be able to produce heartier vegetables that can be stored --  “things that go in stew” as opposed to “salad.” Because of this, he said he’s wary of high-tech solutions like hydroponics. 

But it all depends on what the community is looking for, he said, whether that’s a commercially viable greenhouse or a place to grow salad as an addition to the food available. 

“Anything helps," he said. 

But the key to putting a dent in the food insecurity problem is "doing agriculture in a way that actually is the side dish to the traditional food system.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2023.

-- With files from Rosa Saba in Toronto

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press