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Corey Ellis (L) with Spencer Antaya of TekSavvy (R). Photos courtesy of United Way Ottawa.

Community Builders: Growcer is growing new opportunities for food deserts

By United Way East Ontario on July 29, 2019

Samantha Pope is one of Apt613’s correspondents at United Way Ottawa. With its Community Builder Award program, United Way Ottawa honours Ottawa’s outstanding volunteers: the organizations, partnerships, agencies, neighbourhood groups and individuals who work tirelessly to make our city a better place for everyone.


For some Canadians, finding fresh, affordable food is as easy as walking five minutes down the street to the nearest supermarket and scooping up a fresh head of broccoli. For others, especially those in regions known as “food deserts,” accessing quality food is challenging.

Alida Burke and Corey Ellis founded Growcer with this large problem in mind: increasing the quality of life for people in remote communities, who often have limited access to affordable, healthy food.

“Food insecurity is the challenge of not being able to access affordable and healthy options for food,” explained Alida. “In Ottawa, we have many different food deserts where that is a huge challenge.”

The pair attended the University of Ottawa where they had the opportunity to travel to Nunavut with a community of entrepreneurial leaders.

“When myself and Corey went up north for the first time, we saw this growing issue of food insecurity and we knew we wanted to do something about it,” Alida said.

With the help of community consultation and research, Alida and Corey designed a hydroponic system, a form of soil-less growing. Their system, which they named Growcer, allows vegetables and sprouts to grow locally and quickly in shipping containers all year round in any climate. By doing so, Corey explained, it helps to reduce barriers to healthy food.

Growcer is also a great opportunity to revive the farming industry in an environmentally-friendly manner while providing local jobs for residents, according to Alida.

“People are surprised of what you can do in such a small footprint,” she said. “We have so many different plants growing at once. We can grow up to 12,000 pounds of produce annually, we have 1,800 different planting slots and grow over a hundred different varieties of produce.”

During the 19th annual Community Builder of the Year Awards Gala on May 16, United Way Ottawa honoured Corey and Alida’s achievements with Growcer, and presented them with the GenNext Award. This award recognizes a person or organization led by a person in their 20s or 30s who inspire others in the community through social change.

Alida Burke (L) and Corey Ellis (R)

“Our vision is to have Growcers spread across the world where we can have these set up at the neighbourhood level . . . especially places where food can’t be accessed locally,” Corey said. “When you really think about Canada, we don’t have local food for a good half of the year. So why not find ways to be able to make that happen?”

Recently, Growcer were offered $250,000 on Dragon’s Den to bring the product to new markets. As young millennials, Corey and Alida have not only inspired the city of Ottawa, but have the potential to inspire other young people to create social change in their community.

“I think if you have the idea and the drive and willingness to want to see change,” Alida said, “do it.”


Through research, evaluation and partnerships with community experts, United Way Ottawa identifies the root causes of the biggest social challenges facing our community, and helps find solutions that change tens of thousands of lives for the better. 100 per cent of donations stay in Ottawa to help those most in need.