Recipe for better health

A young man, smiling and holding some broccoli, stands in front of a refrigerated unit full of produce.
Fresh veg at every latitude

Corey Ellis and his Enactus uOttawa teammates are growing two grassroots ventures to supply isolated Inuit communities and low-income urban food deserts with nutritious produce.

The Growcer project has a lot on its plate: alleviating food insecurity in Canada’s North, introducing fresh produce into traditional Inuit dishes and creating jobs for local people. Meanwhile, another initiative, Sprout, aspires to be an oasis in urban food deserts across the country, bringing reasonably priced fruits and vegetables to convenience stores in low-income neighbourhoods where healthy options can be hard to find.

Corey Ellis, a fourth-year student at the Telfer School of Management, is involved in both these efforts to boost the availability of affordable produce. Enactus uOttawa ventures like these typically aim high. But the 100-member campus club, which takes a business-minded approach to solving social problems, also stresses down-to-earth goals such as self-reliance and sustainability.

The Growcer grew out of a trip last year to Iqaluit, where Ellis and three colleagues ran a workshop on entrepreneurship and heard often about the exorbitant cost of food and related health problems. Nunavut residents pay an average of twice as much for the same food as the rest of Canada, and 60% of children live in homes considered food insecure. The little produce that reaches those homes is rarely fresh by the time it arrives.

Ellis and his colleagues wondered, what if communities could skip the long supply chains and harvest vegetables year-round from high-yield containerized farming systems? “We wanted to provide a tool that empowers people to grow their own food and reduces reliance on expensive imports,” Ellis says.

In the summer of 2016, Ellis and Growcer project manager Alida Burke, a third-year accounting student, earned spots in Ottawa’s annual Startup Garage. The three-month boot camp provides money, space and mentoring to help a dozen promising enterprises get off the ground.

The Growcer has now partnered with a small Alaskan company that retrofits 40-foot insulated shipping containers with soil-less hydroponic systems capable of growing three tonnes of food annually. Ellis expects three containers to be installed in northern communities within a year.

“We’re also bringing employment and education pieces to the table,” he says. Local partners — a school or men’s shelter, for example — can provide employment while operating a Growcer container, use the food and sell the surplus. Local chefs will adapt traditional Inuit dishes to include produce, with ingredients coming with a recipe card when sold in stores.

Improving diets is not just a northern challenge. Ellis is also working on Sprout, a fridge stocked with healthy food designed for convenience stores in urban areas that lack nearby sources of low-cost, fresh produce. A successful pilot project at the Remac corner store near uOttawa sells Sprout recipe kits that include all the dry and fresh ingredients needed to prepare a quick, healthy meal.

Sprout has won an Awesome Ottawa award and gained some powerful allies, including Ottawa Public Health and the Canadian Convenience Stores Association, which would like to see this model go national.

Ellis and his team are eyeing another opportunity closer to home. If, in the future, you see shipping containers on campus roofs pumping out super-fresh produce for the 24/7 Dining Hall, you’ll know who to thank.

A woman and a man in winter clothing stand in front of a brick wall mural featuring a polar bear and two swooping owls.

Growcer project manager Alida Burke and Enactus uOttawa president Corey Ellis in Iqaluit.

Close-up of a man’s hands holding two recipe cards and a packet of seasoning.

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