Locally grown and zero-waste: NU Grocery

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Using The Growcer system to deliver local hydroponic greens year-round and without any packaging.

NU Grocery is the first zero-waste grocery store in Ottawa. Instead of picking up pre-packaged items to unwrap at home, customers scoop their own pasta, fill jars with coffee beans, or warm-up beeswax wrap to preserve a piece of cheese. The store’s mission is to avoid single-use packaging and offer sustainable products only in the quantities needed.

That’s why it was important to find a supplier that fit their needs and vision. The Growcer partnered with NU Grocery to provide package-free, locally grown produce year-round.

 “The Growcer is a perfect example of a local supplier with a social cause,” explains Sia.

Sia Veeramani is the co-founder and COO of NU Grocery. The main question on her mind when starting a relationship with any supplier is the packaging. “If they can find a way to make and bring their product to the customer without waste it’s a deal.”

 
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Being only one kilometre away, The Growcer’s container farm was a perfect fit. Instead of receiving baby spinach in a plastic clamshell, every week The Growcer delivers hydroponically grown leafy greens in bulk in a reusable container to the store. Customers are able to buy local produce such as spinach, kale, arugula, and basil, with a minimal impact on the environment. 

“For our zero-waste mission, it’s important to work with local suppliers or even micro-local suppliers like The Growcer, because it enables us to have a packaging exchange program. This is of course in addition to supporting the local economy and other social causes, like food security in the North.”

For customers in one of Canada’s coldest cities, The Growcer’s profitable growing system allows for fresh locally-grown greens to be available all year round. 

Customers embrace locally grown hydroponic produce

The customer feedback has also been positive. When talking with customers, Sia emphasizes The Growcer’s close location, small footprint and low inputs associated with hydroponic container farming.

“Customers love to see local products and when they learn that it’s grown just a kilometre away, they are blown away. That’s the freshest you can get. Plus, it’s very rare that you can find plastic-free greens in a grocery store anymore.”

 The Growcer’s hydroponic growing system also offers other benefits in addition to its short distance from the store. Growing within a hydroponic system requires less use of land, fertilizer, and pesticides. These details add up and make an environmental difference.

“To me, it’s personally healthier since I have metal allergies and react to trace metals that conventionally grown greens absorb from the soil, and hydroponically grown don’t.”

On top of meeting their zero-waste mission, NU Grocery pairing up with fellow Ottawa-based social enterprise The Growcer also aligns with larger business goals.

For Sia, “It’s not all about the bottom line, it’s about people and planet. We vote with our dollars and choose and support social enterprises whenever possible.”

 

Sustainable, profitable growth toward a new food system 

Before co-founding NU Grocery, Sia completed her Master’s in Sustainability Management and published research on sustainable food systems. Starting a zero-waste grocery store stems from a desire to see the current food system evolve.

“Our food system doesn’t provide an ecologically sustainable source of food. It’s designed for short-term, not long-term. It has one of the largest water and carbon footprints, it directly affects biodiversity and it inherently produces a large amount of waste, whether it's food waste or packaging waste.”

Currently, one-third of Canadian household waste comes from food packaging, and only 20 percent of that waste is ever recycled. The Growcer checks a lot of boxes for store: the produce is locally grown with a reduced carbon footprint and able to be delivered without any packaging. Owners of The Growcer’s system partner with businesses like NU Grocery where a sustainable approach matters. 

“The subject [of our food system] is very complicated and thus fascinating as there is no universal one-fits-all solution as many simplify, it's more of a puzzle that we need to solve together.”

And that’s exactly what the sustainable partnership accomplishes. Both The Growcer and NU Grocery share broader goals for the future and the motivation to start solving the larger puzzle. Sia boils down her experience working with the Growcer to: “two things that always make a difference: amazing people, amazing product.”

 
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Ilayda Coruk