POLITICS

University students to build greenhouse in Nunavut to produce cheaper food

06/07/2015 11:00 EDT | Updated 06/07/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - A group of university students will head to Nunavut this summer to build a greenhouse to produce cheaper food for one remote community.

Ryerson University students Stefany Nieto and Ben Canning met two years ago and wanted to tackle an issue affecting Canadians. They are part of Enactus, an international organization that connects students, professors and business experts with the goal of using entrepreneurial action to raise living standards.

They pondered projects that included providing skills to inmates and producing baby warmers for northern families.

And then they came across food scarcity in the North.

Food is hard to come by in Nunavut, especially produce, which arrives via boat or plane. And it's egregiously expensive. Starvation is therefore a real threat in places such as Repulse Bay, at the Arctic Circle in central Nunavut.

"That's the reality they have to face every day," said Canning, 19. "And Canada is supposedly a developed country. The situation is just baffling."

So they decided to take action, emulating similar programs in Alaska and Sweden. They have called their project "Growing North."

Last summer, the students flew to Repulse Bay -- which will revert to its traditional Inuktitut name, Naujaat, on July 2 -- to do further research.

They said they spoke with 10 per cent of the population. The community loved their idea, and has since donated land for the greenhouse.

Mayor Solomon Malliki is excited about the project.

"This should help. The cost of food is a major problem," he said, adding he spent $13 for four apples just last week. "It would be special if we could eat fresh strawberries and blueberries."

The students also asked residents what foods they'd like to grow.

The answers were typical: potatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes.

But there were also requests for "crazy stuff like mangoes," Canning said. "Obviously we can't grow a mango tree on bedrock or in a greenhouse."

The plan, instead, is to focus on less exotic fruits, vegetables and herbs, which will be grown with hydroponic technology that uses nutrient-rich water rather than soil.

With the community on board, the students then had to raise money. The business management students said they managed to raise more than $150,000 through donations from Ryerson, Brookfield Institute and several others, along with a few online funding campaigns.

They are in the process of buying a greenhouse from Growing Spaces, which looks like an igloo made of plastic panels. Technically it's called a geodesic dome, a modular sphere made with triangular polycarbonate panels.

The Colorado-based Growing Spaces says their domes are perfect for harsh climates because they can withstand 200 km/h winds and 250 centimetres of snow.

In early August, Nieto will head up to Nunavut for five weeks while Canning and three other students will join her two weeks later to build the greenhouse along with members of the community.

The dome's parts are scheduled to arrive by ship on Aug. 15. It will take about a week to put together, Nieto said.

"The beauty is it's like Ikea furniture and comes with instructions and parts that you put together," said Nieto, 20.

The greenhouse will become part of the curriculum of Tusarvik School, where students will work in it as part of a course, and the local Catholic priest will watch over the greenhouse year-round.

The students have grand plans. If their calculations hold true, food will be 50 per cent cheaper.

And they say the operation, which is a non-profit, will break even after the first year. If that's the case, they said, they will look to build greenhouses in four nearby communities.

"We essentially want to be the healthy McDonald's of the north," Canning said.

"We want to have a greenhouse in every single community in Nunavut to reduce the cost of food. If we can't reduce the cost of logistical and transport costs, then let's go ahead and do it locally."

Follow Liam Casey on Twitter @liamdevlincasey