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A Lettuce (and More) Grows in Arviat, Nunavut

THE HUFFINGTON POST: In northern communities, fresh vegetables are expensive due to the high cost of shipping. Young adults are learning how to grow their own produce in greenhouses as a way to promote healthy – and affordable – eating.

Written by Emma Prestwich Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Radishes grow in a raised planter in the greenhouse in Arviat, Nunavut.Keenan Lindell

Vegetables aren’t hugely popular in the northern community of Arviat, Nunavut.

The hamlet of just over 2,000 people on the shores of Hudson Bay has two grocery stores, and fresh food, which has to be flown in from southern Canada, is pricey.

Many vegetables, like lettuce, also don’t keep for very long, and community educator Shirley Tagalik says this makes them even less appealing.

“If you buy something and it’s wilted and goes bad the next day, [you] don’t want to waste your money,” Tagalik tells the Huffington Post Canada.

But now the community has a research greenhouse, a venture she hopes will not only help solve the community’s food insecurity problem, but also spark people’s interest in eating healthier.

“We want people to experience the taste of freshly grown produce,” she says. “They’re used to lettuce from the store that doesn’t have any taste.”

An initiative of the Arviat Wellness Centre, the greenhouse project started in 2013 with grow boxes for individual families who wanted to jump-start their own home gardens, according to Tagalik.

Volunteers filled the boxes with soil and planted the seeds, according to Keenan Lindell, who was a project coordinator in 2015.

“The goal of that is to get people in the community involved in what we’re doing,” he says.

“If they can see the vegetables grow, then it might be motivation to eat more [of them].”

The next summer, a team built a research greenhouse next to the high school, and planted almost 300 seeds in four test boxes with different combinations of soils and fertilizers, he says.

In 2015, they added two more boxes that were raised off the ground with Styrofoam to keep the soil warm and vented barrels filled with water that keep the air humid.


The greenhouse team monitors the plants and measures the vegetables when they are ready to pick to learn which soil and fertilizer combination works best in the tough northern weather. (Keenan Lindell)

Many people might be surprised that vegetables could grow at all up north, but Lindell, whose mother is former Liberal MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell, says the summers are getting longer, which means a longer growing season.

“Everybody was seeing all the negatives of climate change … we wanted to try to focus on the positives of climate change,” he said.

An Arctic summer, while more tolerable in Arviat than, say, the remote settlement of Alert, is still unpredictable. While light is almost constant and temperatures can reach up to 30C (86F), harsh winds or even hail or snow are still a possibility.

They’ve had mixed success with produce – lettuce, spinach, radishes, tomatoes, baby carrots and onions have grown well, while peas, carrots and bell peppers weren’t as successful.

Lindell says only one pepper popped up last summer, and it was the size of a loonie [a Canadian dollar coin] by the end of the growing season.

The project is far from economically viable, and one of the biggest challenges has been finding local fertilizers for the soil.

Seaweed, which is abundant in the coastal community, didn’t yield the best results. Another possibility is goose feces, which Lindell says is at risk of ending up in the river, where some residents get their drinking water.

The team also struck up an agreement with the owners of the local Northern Store to take their compost. Using rotten food has an added benefit – bears are becoming a problem in the town, attracted by smelly dumpsters.

Martha Pingushat, a 22-year-old who also worked as a project coordinator last summer, has been tending a worm farm during the winter, feeding them compost twice a week, says Lindell.

Two-thirds of Arviat’s population is under the age of 16, and while teens aren’t known for their love of leafy greens, Tagalik says they’re the target audience for programming about nutrition.

Pingushat is already on board with the message, saying she hopes people in Arviat can lose weight and start eating better.

“I want people to eat more healthy food,” she says. “We only cook fast food.”

This is far from the first educational initiative to push youth to eat healthy – teens created a game show back in 2013 called Atii Let’s Do It to teach their peers about nutrition. The Wellness Centre also runs a Young Hunters Program and cooking classes focused on using traditional “country food” like caribou, cod and bannock.

It also isn’t the first greenhouse in the community – small-scale ones have existed for decades, started through church or school-based projects.

But this initiative is special because it gives Arviat’s young people a coveted summer job. It relies on outside funding, something Tagalik says they were able to get this summer – enough to hire three high school students.

“Many families rely on their young people having jobs through the summer to help their family through,” she says.

The plan is to start planting with visiting students from a CEGEP, a Quebec-based pre‑university college, on June 15. The team is hoping for a warm growing season, but one never knows up north.

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission.

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