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Why ShopRite and Compass Group have a taste for urban farming

No longer underground, vertical farms, rooftop gardens and aeroponics are moving beyond their roots to whet the appetites of corporate food giants.

Will the U.S. urban agricultural movement become mainstream? It’s certainly about to garner far more visibility, thanks to legislation proposed this week by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a ranking member on the Senate’s committee for Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Her bill, dubbed the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016, would expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s support for farm cooperatives in metropolitan areas, make it simpler for farmers running rooftop gardens or vertical farms to apply for USDA programs and fund research into new water and energy technologies that might accelerate adoption. Stabenow introduced her ideas in Detroit, a fertile example of what’s possible with the right public and private sector focus.

"A steady increase in the number of urban farms in the Capital City is beginning to impact health and nutrition awareness, good food access and food security, even as it is transforming fragile neighborhoods," noted Joan Nelson, executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, which runs a wholesale market for local produce and foods in Lansing, Michigan.

Although it’s a long way from becoming law, debate on the Urban Farm Act could help bring new legitimacy to the farmers, gardeners and technologists cultivating this movement. While no one really believes urban farms will be capable of supporting all of the food needs of their home cities, they’ll definitely be part of the solution, according to experts speaking last week at VERGE 16 in Santa Clara, California.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated last year that about 15 percent of the world’s food supply was attributable to farms or greenhouses in urban locations.

There’s a romanticized notion of local food production, and there’s a complete underappreciation of the complexity involved to be successful.

"I really see the future of agriculture in the ag of the middle sector," said Helene York, global director, responsible business for giant foodservice company Compass Group, during a keynote interview at VERGE. "Not in really big ag, not in really small ag. Not in hyper-local and not in global. But really about where do we find the best locations to grow some of the best food."

York is affiliated with one of Compass’ highest profile accounts, Google. While she’s not at liberty to discuss the sources that the technology company is studying for its corporate cafeterias and catering operations, she’s researching ingredients such as sustainably farmed seaweed. Kelp fettuccine, anyone? It could become a menu item, if we’re willing to set aside preconceived notions of taste.

"I am optimistic in the role of technology working with private industry as well as governments," York said.

Advancing food 'literacy'

One of the more important roles that urban farming operations will play is in advancing food literacy, and teaching urban citizens to appreciate organic produce that isn’t readily available in some lower-income neighborhoods. In San Francisco, for example, thousands of schoolchildren visit Alemany Farm, a site of several acres bounded by freeways, near public housing, and created from a former junkyard. There they can taste food that isn’t necessarily bred for shipping, so that that have a better appreciation for the concept of fresh.

The power of urban agriculture, in this case, is really education.

"The power of urban agriculture, in this case, is really education," said Eli Zigas, food and agriculture director for the nonprofit organization SPUR, during a VERGE panel. "They come and volunteer, they get their hands in the dirt and they learn about food and where it comes from. I think that’s one of the most valuable things, if not the most valuable thing, that urban agriculture provides to a city, and why a city would want to have it.”

Urban farmers that try to compete head-to-head against rural, organic farming operations will find it difficult to compete profitably. Rather, municipal governments should consider policies that frame and support urban farming operations in the context of a broader regional network.

"We’re going to have a national and international food system for a very long time," Zigas said.

Growing economic opportunity

For vertical farms specialist Aerofarms, urban farming is as much about creating new jobs as it is about reshaping the food supply, according to company’s co-founder and CEO David Rosenberg.

This week, the company opened its ninth aeroponic facility, housed in a former, converted steel factory in Newark, New Jersey. Aerofarms uses special lights to grow plants on trays stacked vertically to maximize growing space. (The new Newark facility has 13,000 of them.) These lights can do everything from deterring insects (sans pesticides) to tweaking the flavor of a leafy green. Rosenberg said his company can produce up to 22 crop turns per year.

"Our productivity per square foot is about 75 times higher than for a field farmer," he told VERGE attendees, adding that the approach uses about 95 percent less water.

Aerofarms is forging relationships with nearby grocery chains, such as New Jersey-based Wakefern Food, which owns the ShopRite supermarket co-op chain. Its crops are delivered to local distribution centers, where they can be shipped to where demand is greatest. The produce commands about the same price as organic field farmers.

Aerofarms also sells to the corporate foodservice company Compass Group, with which it is working on new recipes that are pushing people to think outside of traditional eating habits. One example: The two organizations are addressing the food waste dilemma by experimenting with ways to use all of a vegetable, including the stems.

"There’s a romanticized notion of local food production, and there’s a complete underappreciation of the complexity involved to be successful," Rosenberg said. 

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