One of the recurring questions vertical farming companies face is how they are going to get their locally grown, supposedly healthier wares to more than just those with disposable income. So far, the answers have been few and far between, but that could be changing. Towards the end of last week, ABC7 reported that New Jersey-based AeroFarms and World Economic Forum have partnered with the City of Jersey City to distribute greens free of charge to communities in need.
While AeroFarms actually hinted at the news back in June, it’s worth reiterating here because it underscores the point that vertical farming can — and should — play a much bigger role than simply providing greens to high-end groceries and restaurants.
This is the first partnership between a city municipality and a vertical farming company in the U.S. Through it, AeroFarms will build 10 vertical farms in senior centers, schools, public housing, and municipal buildings around Jersey City. Collectively, the farms are expected to produce 19,000 pounds of vegetables annually, according to AeroFarms. Greens will be free of charge to residents, and the initiative also includes healthy eating workshops and quarterly health screenings.
The idea, of course, is to get healthier foods and food habits to those in food-insecure communities.
Speaking to ABC7, Jersey City Director of Health and Human Service Stacey Flanagan said that while food security has always been an issue, “with COVID it’s just exacerbated that.”
Her point is an important one. We talk about the ways in which the pandemic has forced us to rethink our eating choices and habits. Thanks in no small part to the pandemic, plant-based foods are on the rise, consumers are vying for space on CSA waitlists, and vertical farming companies are now releasing models of their high-tech systems for individual homes. But it’s a small number of consumers that have the time or money to explore those options.
For many, a $10 pack of alt-meat or a $500 at-home farm remain out of reach in terms of accessibility and affordability. As JourneyFoods’ CEO Riana Lynn reminded us recently, our eating is not equal, and lack of access to food is less the issue as lack of access to nutritious food: “Even when we are braced with an overwhelming lot of food options, they almost always lack the nutrient-density need to curb away from negative outcomes.”
As it is right now, vertical farming, because of its focus on leafy greens, can’t adequately feed a community in the sense of it providing a healthy balance of proteins, vitamins, and calories. But it can play a role in bringing more nutritious elements to that community, which is what AeroFarms’ new partnership seems to be about. And we’ve seen promising news in the recent past that shows these farms will grow more than arugula one day: strawberries and even wheat, for example.
AeroFarms isn’t alone in trying to bring more food equity to the vertical farming sector. Boston-based Freight Farms works with Miami’s Lotus House, a facility and resource center for women and children experiencing homelessness. The farm works in tandem with Lotus House’s Culinary Center, supplying both food and education to residents.
Over in Chicago, Wilder Fields has taken an abandoned Target store located in a food desert and turned it into a massive vertical farming facility to supply 25 million heads of lettuce to local grocery stores. The facility will also house an educational and retail component, and sell greens for cheaper than you would find at, say Whole Foods.
North of the border, Elevate Farms and North Star Agriculture Corp. are building out farms in isolated parts of Northern Canada, where food insecurity is rampant.
All of these efforts (and quite a few more) suggests vertical farming has a dual role to play in future. If it can prove itself scalable, which it seems to be doing so far, it can provide a healthier alternative to traditional farming. And it can help lead the charge for food and food tech companies when it comes to creating more equality in our food system.