These Greenhouse Designers Are Bringing Fresh Food to Arctic Communities

Stefany Nieto and Ben Canning are providing affordable, healthy food to remote communities, and involving locals in the process.

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Dec 13 2017, 10:41pm

Rei Watanabe

When Ben Canning and Stefany Nieto first arrived in Naujaat, a small Arctic hamlet in Nunavut with a population of 1,080, they didn’t feel like they were in Canada. When their plane landed, children ran up to them asking for snacks and candy. When their business partner was late, locals offered to take them into their homes to wait. As commerce students studying at Ryerson University, it couldn’t have felt more different than downtown Toronto.

“Being from Toronto, you walk down the sidewalk and nobody really looks at each other, nobody talks to each other,” said Nieto. “Anybody who goes up north feels that way. It's friendly, it's amazing, people are very open to you.”

They also saw the poorly-supported infrastructure and high levels of poverty. “This isn't the Canada that I grew up in and it shouldn't be the Canada that they have to grow up in,” Canning said.

With the help of Enactus Ryerson, an organization that works on humanitarian projects around the world, they co-founded Growing North in 2013, an organization that creates greenhouses in the North to provide more affordable fresh produce to remote communities. A major focus is investing resources in those communities and involving locals directly in the process.

Food insecurity is a huge issue in the North. A study released in May by the Conference Board of Canada found that Nunavut is the most affected region in Canada, with a quarter of its population experiencing moderate or severe effects. This is in part due to the inaccessibility of fresh products and the soaring prices of what’s actually available in stores there.

In September of 2015, Canning and Nieto’s team finished their first greenhouse in Naujaat, with the help of the Nunavut government as well as the local Naujaat municipality, which provided the leased land they use and co-financed a full-time greenhouse manager. When they opened a farmer’s market this year, selling produce at half the market price for the area, their goods sold out in under two hours.

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Our youngest customer was about seven years old; she used her allowance money to come into the greenhouse to purchase a head of lettuce and she ate it right there,” Canning said. “Our oldest was about 68—an elder in the community—and buys 13 heads of lettuce and a few bags of kale for her family.”

They’re planning on expanding the project to the Nunavut community of Arviat. With a population of 2,514, it’s more than twice as big as Naujaat, so Nieto said they had to scale the project up to fit the needs of the community by building two domes. That project should be finished by summer 2018.

Their next big goal is upgrading their greenhouse so it can operate year-round. Currently it’s only running for six months of the year, but at full capacity it will have the potential to produce 13,250 lbs of food. The only difficulty is the rough northern winters. Canning says the weather can get up to -60℃ (-76℉) with windchill, and there are large timeframes of complete darkness.

“Winter is a challenge,” he said. “Understatement of the century.”

They’re designing a system that will heat the greenhouse and provide the plants with sufficient light for growth—plus, it has to be affordable enough to be sustainable. Canning said that when the greenhouse is operating year-round, they can look at the possibility of adding livestock to the project.

They’re also working to create a formalized co-op program for high school students in Naujaat to earn credits while learning all the aspects of managing the greenhouse, as well as working on their Arctic Farmers Program, where locals can be trained and then later tasked with managing projects in other communities.

“We're not just building a greenhouse, washing our hands, and walking away,” Canning said. For the Growing North team, it’s about supporting the community in ways that can last.

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