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Community greenhouses will help people access affordable, healthy food

Max Noël is part of a team of UNB engineering graduates tackling food insecurity with a plan to build innovative community greenhouses.

The University of New Brunswick (UNB) is shining a light on innovation and entrepreneurship at UNB through stories that inspire, transform, provoke, and drive society toward a brighter, healthier tomorrow. This is the third story in the series.

A group of environmentally and socially conscious engineering students from the University of New Brunswick (UNB) were tasked with creating a viable and innovative idea in a weekend for their final-year engineering project. They zeroed in on the issue of food security after doing some research and learning startling facts like one in five people in struggle with buying enough affordable, healthy food.

“My mind was blown when I learned the statistics,” group member Max Noël (BScCHE'23) said. “That is a lot of people. It's inevitable you know someone who is suffering [from this].”

The group decided to address the issue with Fresh Start Farms, an automation-assisted community greenhouse that will tackle food insecurity and promote sustainable, local agriculture.

Along with Noël, fellow engineering graduates Majd Al Awabdeh (BScME'23) and Brandon Saulnier (BScME'23) developed the idea through UNB’s technology management and entrepreneurship program (TME).

“We started thinking about how we could help people have their basic needs met,” said Noël, who is continuing to develop the business at the Summer Institute, a business accelerator program offered by the J. Herbert Smith Centre at UNB. “We quickly jumped onto the issue that some people simply can't afford to eat a healthy diet. And that some people in that category can't afford to eat at all.”

“We wanted to do something about that.”

With support from TME, mentors and funding programs, the team founded Fresh Start Farms, where underserved community members can grow and harvest their own produce.

Food insecurity isn't a visible condition, said Noël, but it does affect a high percentage of the population. As Canada's second most food-insecure province, about 174,000 people in New Brunswick have difficulty accessing affordable, healthy food.

Part of the solution is people growing their own, but that’s not easy to do, says Noël.

“Growing food in your backyard may sound simple, but to many people it's impossible. It’s a luxury,” he says. “There are so many considerations. Space, time, money, knowledge. Most people are stuck spending their spare time trying to make money just to survive.”

The design of the community greenhouses would eliminate these barriers. Non-profit organizations would own the greenhouse and, with the support of the Fresh Start Farms team, be responsible for its maintenance. Both seasoned and novice gardeners could plant their seeds and produce successful crops with ease and support.

The greenhouses will use vertical farming technology along with innovative automated pollination, rainwater collection, and self-watering systems, which create a low-maintenance environment where plants thrive.

While Noël, Saulnier and Al Awabdeh could have created a fully automated greenhouse, it was important to leave room for human connection.

“Accepting handouts can be traumatic. Our greenhouse completely negates that effect. You did the work. You grew the vegetable. You earned it.”

The team hopes users will find a sense of accomplishment, pride and community in growing and harvesting their own food.

“Max and the team are willing to go beyond to make this business happen,” said Igor Harres de Oliveira, program coordinator at the J Herbert Smith Centre. “They not only care about the business but the people it could impact in the future. They’re looking to build community and put healthy food on the table for everyone.”

“They see food insecurity as the big problem it is and together, they have the tools, knowledge and will to make it happen.”

Fresh Start Farms greenhouses will be suitable for year-round use, having been developed with Canada’s harsh winters in mind.

“We've modelled the heat losses of the greenhouse at -40 degrees Celsius and 40 kilometre-an-hour winds,” said Noël. “It is very much designed for winter use in Canada.”

The footprint of each greenhouse will be 20 feet by 30 feet, comfortably fitting 10 gardeners at a time. It will produce about $20,000 worth of vegetables per year.

“Even if you’re a completely novice gardener,” said Noël, “you'll be capable of producing a reliable amount of quality food.”

The team is partnering with local non-profit community organizations that will purchase the greenhouses and give community members access to plant, grow and harvest their own food.

They have built a strong network of support in Fredericton and envision the first full-scale greenhouse being constructed by the end of next year. The team foresees non-profit organizations offering access to the unit and supplies, including seeds, at little to no fee, making it accessible to people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Access to the greenhouse will bring users not only the physical health benefits of a better diet,” said Noël, “it would give them the ability to spend their resources on improving their lives beyond their basic necessities.”

First two stories in the series:

Social innovation lab connects early childhood educators
Collaborative success: Jake Augustine's journey to leadership and empowerment