This Arctic Greenhouse Is Helping To Feed Northern Families During The Pandemic

Yes, it is possible to garden in the Arctic.
Inuvik Community Greenhouse staff pose with seeds donated by southern Canadians.
Inuvik Community Greenhouse staff pose with seeds donated by southern Canadians.

This is part of an ongoing HuffPost Canada series on food insecurity and how it’s affecting Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this edition, we explore how North America’s most northern greenhouse promotes local food production as an answer to food insecurity during the pandemic.

Getting kids to eat vegetables isn’t hard in the Arctic, especially when they’re grown under the midnight sun. In fact, Inuvik Community Greenhouse executive director Ray Solotki remembers one boy from the hamlet of Aklavik last year heading straight from the local airport to a garden plot to do just that.

“He was so excited and ran straight for the greenhouse to go and see how his kale was … we have kids eating kale like candy because it’s so fresh and delicious,” Solotki told HuffPost Canada.

To the uninformed, Arctic gardening can sound like an oxymoron. In reality, summers with 24 hours of sunlight make the greenhouse lush and balmy from March to October. What’s grown can take on delicious flavour profiles because of the unique surrounding area, as Inuvialuit gardener Lanita Thrasher can attest.

“One year, we had cold wind coming off the Arctic Ocean all summer and it made for the sweetest strawberries I’ve ever tried in my life,” Thrasher recalled. She hails from the nearby hamlet of Paulatuk, where they run a garden named for the local Qungulliq plant, but previously worked and volunteered at the greenhouse.

Normally, the greenhouse is a thriving community space, where people can partake in yoga classes, tours, cooking workshops, and harvest delicious produce like rhubarb, lettuce, and peas.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in March, the 18,000-square-foot “oasis of the north” needed to change operations entirely to ensure northern families could access fresh produce even during a health crisis. Almost a quarter of N.W.T. households have trouble buying groceries.

“This is our tester year,” Solotki explained. “Can we be a farm instead of a greenhouse?”

Normally $35, <a href="https://nnsl.com/inuvikdrum/inuvik-greenhouse-becoming-large-farm-for-2020/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the weekly food boxes are now $20 each all summer</a>, NNSL reports.
Normally $35, the weekly food boxes are now $20 each all summer, NNSL reports.

Usually, 90 per cent of its 180 soil-filled plots are used by paying members, who use them to grow whatever they’d like. The rest of the plots are used by the greenhouse to grow plants and produce for sale.

This year, that ratio has flipped because only staff and a restricted number of members are allowed to enter. Thanks to a $25,000 grant from Community Food Centres Canada, the greenhouse can sell subsidized weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables to those in need. So far, over 50 families have applied, four times the usual amount of applicants.

Additionally, seniors on fixed incomes are receiving free flowers, herbs, and mixed greens, funded by a United Way grant. Donations to homeless shelters have also been made.

Some plots have also been used to grow plants on behalf of members who continue to pay their dues, meaning Solotki — who also serves as a councillor and a firefighter for the community — and her part-time staff have kept busy watering and harvesting what grows at a breakneck speed, all while social distancing.

Aside from providing fruits and vegetables, the greenhouse hopes that the plants they distribute through starter sales encourage people to grow in their own backyards. The greenhouse’s ultimate goal this year is for town residents to realize they can grow food anywhere, not just in the greenhouse.

Most Inuvik residents are Inuvialuit and food sovereignty is an important value for the greenhouse. Defined by Food Secure Canada as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food,” having autonomy over what’s on the dinner table is something they believe cultivating locally supports for all community members. In Thrasher’s view, the pandemic might be a good time for people new to gardening to try it out.

Country food, which refers to the Northern cuisine made by food sourced from the surrounding area, is largely covered by outlets in relation to local animals and fish. Culturally appropriate fresh produce, such as blueberries grown in the greenhouse, is also important to make available.

“People don’t equate the Arctic with food security, but we have the ability. We have the intelligence,” Solotki said. “There’s this misconception that Indigenous people in the north don’t eat vegetables. That’s not true. The truth is, they would eat vegetables if they were readily available to them and were in good quality.”

Growing local is part of food security solution

Availability and cost is a huge issue when it comes to making food accessible to people in the territory.

Does $21 for a bag of flour sound reasonable? Even at the height of quarantine baking, shelling out four times the average Canadian cost would make many balk. But for an Inuvik resident, high food prices are normal year-round. The territorial government reported a bag of grapes sold for $10 in the small town last year.

Food prices in northern Canada can make grocery trips costly for families, although some items in Yellowknife, the territory’s biggest city, and nearby communities, are on par with southern prices. Financial incentives like government allowances and higher wages for certain jobs can help alleviate hunger, but lower-income residents aren’t as fortunate.

Grocery stores aren’t experiencing the food shortages seen at the pandemic’s start, but the effects of potential summer supply chain disruptions could mean whatever problems southern Canadians face grocery shopping this season will be worse for northern residents.

“When people rely on social assistance or income assistance, and they are living paycheck to paycheck ... you can’t stock up on three months worth of groceries,” Solotki said.

The lack of options and lack of freshness sold in stores can be a problem too.

“Instead of bringing trucks up the highway, full of potatoes and carrots and onions, we should look at growing a lot of things locally,” Inuvialuit gardener Lucy Kuptana told HuffPost Canada.

However, Arctic crop-growing for sustenance isn’t as widespread as it could be.

“This is our tester year. Can we be a farm instead of a greenhouse?”

- Ray Solotki

One of the barriers is apprehension over gardening from newbies, which Solotki hopes will be less daunting over time. Maybe by trying to grow carrots or another vegetable during the pandemic, they can slowly build up their confidence in crop-growing, she suggested.

Another barrier Solotki and Kuptana list is the after-effects of colonialism. The location of the greenhouse is closely associated with a now-demolished residential school.

“If [locals have a gardening background], it might have come from residential schools. So it has a negative connotation,” Solotki said.

Greenhouse replaces painful memories with community legacy

Kuptana’s greatest achievement is growing cucumbers in the greenhouse, as the “finicky” crop needed careful maintenance.

“The year I tried cucumber, I harvested so many. We were having a nice salad every day for over a month. It was wonderful,” she recalled, laughing.

The greenhouse is a place of sensory delight for her, as the earthy smells and vibrant greenery make it one of her favourite places in town. But some walls are puck-marked; dents made when the greenhouse was a hockey arena up until 1998. The arena was beside Grollier Hall, the residential school survivors like Lucy Kuptana lived in for years and where many Indigenous children were abused.

While some people did enjoy skating and playing in the ice rink, the site was still part of the school’s infrastructure and could still elicit ‘bad feelings.’ However, Kuptana believes its current incarnation is a force of good.

“I think it’s almost the ultimate form of reconciliation,” Kuptana said. “To see it turn from something that was a part of the residential school legacy into a community legacy that’s so bright and cheerful … [before the pandemic, it was full of] children and families. It’s wonderful to see.”

The in-person gatherings Kuptana loves won’t be happening anytime soon, but the greenhouse’s community continues to root for them online. Calls for help, such as egg cartons, aprons, or seed donations from southern Canadians when suppliers were delayed by the pandemic, have been answered with gusto. The greenhouse’s video updates, filmed by Solotki, are met with plenty of enthusiasm and appreciation.

Zoom cooking classes using local ingredients delivered to people’s doorsteps are on the horizon, and a potential partnership with Inuvialuit Regional Corporation could lead to a future subsidized food program for Indigenous families.

Solotki is always thankful to those pitching in, as they’re always open to donations, especially those who recognize others could use extra helpings. A nurse from the area contributed $500 to help feed families who can’t afford the food boxes.

“People aren’t just thinking of themselves. They’re thinking about how they can help others in the community,” she said, adding that she hopes every person in town feels a sense of ownership of the greenhouse. “The greenhouse is a community project and it’s really important that people know we care about everyone in the community, [regardless of] whether they can afford it or have experience gardening. Everyone is welcome.”

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