Imagine you are single mother living in an urban, economically blighted area. Your nearest large grocery store with affordable priced fruits and vegetables is five miles away and there is no bus or subway service. You’re a veteran, have two children, and a minimum wage job at the local fast food restaurant, or maybe no job at all. The only street vendor in your neighborhood sells crack cocaine. The vacant lot across the street has been a dumping ground for all sorts of contaminants for fifty years. Your family struggles with obesity as the only affordable food at the corner convenience store come in a plastic wrapper and is packed with preservatives, processed carbohydrates, and chemicals you would need a PhD to understand.
Now imagine you awake one morning to see activity at the site across the street as workers clear the debris and begin to encapsulate the contaminated ground with plastic lining and concrete. Next they start erecting a steel and glass structure and a small retail outlet. You finally get the courage to go ask one of the workers taking a break from construction what they are doing. He miraculously tells you they are building a hydroponic greenhouse and will be selling affordable produce in your neighborhood. Oh, and the best part, he offers you a job to trained to be a greenhouse grower paying you $15 an hour.
This story is not a fantasy and is actually happening as I write this article in Bridgeport CT. Wikipedia describes a food desert as a geographic area where affordable & healthy food is difficult to obtain. “Food deserts exist in rural areas and low-income communities, particularly for those without access to an automobile.”
Although the ability to grow plants without soil has been around since the hanging gardens of Babylon, advances in processes and technology over the last few decades have made hydroponic farming a economically profitable reality. Entrepreneurs are combining hydroponics with reclaimed brownfields in urban food deserts to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to impoverished residents. The economics of this effort are favorable as local governments typically will provide reduced cost land, tax incentives, and other help to foster development. The hydroponic farm will find upscale customers for its product in the expanded urban area and can afford to direct some profits to local community centers for nutritional education as well as subsidized produce offered for the low income community.
There are also jobs available for these residents as the food has to be successfully grown and this takes trained labor. With an eye towards the social good, an entrepreneur can create multiple layers of benefits within the community. In addition to making money for its investors, the farm can reclaim brownfields, increase the city tax base, provide employment to local residents, provide fresh produce, and education on proper nutrition. This is the classic “multiplier effect” at work.
All of these economic results are good but the real, long-term consequence of this model is to provide hope for a community who has lived for decades without the gift of waking to a bright future. In this sense, hydroponic farming can literally change the trajectory of chronic poor nutrition, the diseases that such malnutrition produces at great cost to our society and urban blight in America. All it takes is visionary local community leaders, politicians, and entrepreneurs to make this dream happen. We are dreaming big in Bridgeport, CT.
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