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Acadia thinks inside the box on food sustainability solution

A new hydroponic system will allow the university to harvest hundreds of pounds of greens a month out of a refurbished shipping container.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | JAN 17 2020

Food doesn’t get much more local than this: Acadia University has a new, year-round source of greens just steps from the campus dining hall.

In October, the university installed a Growcer unit, a 40-foot-by-8-foot repurposed shipping container that comes fitted with hydroponic growing equipment, shelving, seeds as well as a climate control and monitoring system that can be remotely accessed. The project is a partnership between the university’s foodservice provider, Chartwells, and the campus sustainability office.

“It’s based on our food plan for Acadia, which focuses on healthy, sustainable and affordable food,” says sustainability coordinator Jodie Noiles.

According to the university’s executive chef Peter Welton, in the first month of operation they harvested 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of greens for the salad bar and deli counter at Wheelock Dining Hall. He anticipates harvesting about 400 pounds (181 kilograms) a month once the unit is running at full capacity. About 10 percent will be reserved for the student union food bank and other local food security organizations.

Executive chef Peter Welton (foreground) and Acadia president Peter Ricketts tour the Acadia Growcer unit. Photo by Fred Sgambati.

With some 3,000 meals served out of Acadia’s dining hall every day, the Growcer won’t replace traditional suppliers – but that was never the goal, says Ms. Noiles. “It’s an opportunity to showcase innovations in food services and what’s possible on a campus environment,” she says.

Ms Noiles adds that like other food initiatives on campus – including a half-acre community farm, the Acadia Fork and Farm club and various research projects at the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre – the Growcer program at Acadia also serves an educational purpose. Not only have they hired a nutrition student to support the project, but ever since the unit was installed, Mr. Welton and his team have been fielding requests from faculty to demonstrate the hydroponic system in their classes.

In a way, the project also supports student entrepreneurship. The Growcer model was developed by Corey Ellis and Alida Burke while they were members of the University of Ottawa’s Enactus team. After earning multiple awards in the undergraduate student entrepreneurship competition in 2018, they took the concept to Dragon’s Den, where they ultimately secured an investment of $250,000. As part of their pitch, Mr. Ellis and Ms. Burke estimated that the cost for installing a Growcer unit and training on-site staff is up to $200,000. (Mr. Welton couldn’t confirm the cost of the Acadia unit.)

In 2019, Growcer struck a partnership with Chartwells, the largest foodservice provider to postsecondary campuses in Canada. The deal paved the way for the self-contained hydroponic systems to be installed at U of O and Acadia.

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