Fighting Back Against Hunger and Improving Food Access

Greenstar lettuce

“The world is at a critical juncture.”

That’s the headline of an article about the state of food security and nutrition in the world. In painstaking detail, the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations uses the article to describe how the number of people affected by hunger globally increased in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It estimates that between 720 million and 811 million people faced hunger. If you go with the middle of the projected range — around 768 million — 118 million more people faced hunger in 2020 than in 2019. How does this happen and what’s being done about it?

The Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations says that unless bold actions are taken to accelerate progress, especially actions to address major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition and inequalities affecting access to food, hunger will not be eradicated by 2030, as the U.N. had hoped.

After remaining virtually unchanged from 2014 to 2019, the prevalence of undernourishment climbed to around 9.9 percent in 2020, from 8.4 percent a year earlier, the article says.

According to FoodBankNews.org, all of this activity is happening against a backdrop of heightened emphasis on nutrition from the USDA, which in mid-March released a report outlining its commitment to nutrition security (in addition to food security). The USDA noted the importance of nutrition in fighting diet-related disease, which is a leading cause of illness in the U.S., accounting for more than 600,000 deaths each year, or more than 40,000 each month.

Sadly, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, especially when it comes to access. New farming practices, including controlled-environment agriculture, are increasingly being recognized as a potential solution to fill the gaps and avoid supply chain delays entirely. 

Strategically placing container farms in and around population centers could have a dramatic effect on providing a sustainable and secure source of nutrient-rich food. These farms can produce 200-300 pounds of fresh food weekly and help feed people in marginalized communities. They can also be used to help train the next generation of urban farmers and create jobs, providing ancillary benefits that can reverberate for years to come.

Container Farms on School Campuses – Community Supported Agriculture

Container Farms on School Campuses

With a foundation in technology and science, there’s greater interest in container farming among students of all ages. Controlled-climate farming enables people to grow food almost anywhere in the world, helping to eliminate food deserts.

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Prototype Vertical Hydroponic System at Valor Christian High School

Valor Christian High School

Valor Christian High SchoolSEDALIA, Colo. – Valor Christian High School has a project-based learning environment that is helping to lead the next generation of agriculturists to the greener pastures of the future.

The Applied STEM Program, led by director Rick Russon, enables students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom, preparing them for successful careers in a number of industries, including agriculture. Members of Valor’s agriculture club, in particular, have an infectious enthusiasm for ideas that combine brain power with a desire to make a positive impact on the world, and it’s already leading to groundbreaking results. For their capstone project, Russon and the club members built a four-tube vertical hydroponic unit using prototype parts donated by FarmBox Foods.

“I told Tony I’d like to have a farm here, but I don’t have the money to do that,” Russon said, referring to FarmBox Foods founder Tony English, whom he met on LinkedIn.

The unit — based at the school — began producing huge quantities of fresh lettuce, and quickly grabbed the attention of students and faculty at the private Highlands Ranch school. Russon estimates that more than two dozen teachers have approached him about constructing a home unit for them. FarmBox Foods also shared the know-how and the tools necessary for students to conduct “shoebox mycology” experiments, and soon, the Valor students were growing gourmet mushrooms on a small scale in their classroom.

Russon’s foray into academia was not exactly planned. He volunteered to be a parent advisor, and that quickly morphed into a role as director of the Applied STEM Program, where he and the students have flourished.

“I have always loved gardening and growing things,” Russon said. “I brought in some projects from home and the students saw a germination station I brought in and said ‘can we grow something?’ That’s how the agriculture club started.”

Now, Russon, who in his professional career has helped lead innovative projects related to tank gun stabilization, torpedo guidance and even flight simulations for NASA’s first five space shuttle missions, is developing a control system for an 8-tube vertical hydroponic system using Raspberry Pi controllers typically used in video game systems. It will help run a network of sensors that monitor temperature, nutrient levels and pH, and control ventilation fans and full- spectrum LED lights also used by FarmBox Foods. The Applied STEM Program is aiming to modify the four-tube hydroponic system and build several models to bring them into food deserts to feed people in need. Valor Christian sends nearly 40 teams throughout the world each year on missions, and Russon’s hope is that they can help deploy a workable system in areas with little arable land and few resources.

The Valor-based vertical hydroponic setup, meanwhile, continues to draw interest from students and faculty who want to grow their own farm-fresh greens and potentially help others learn the science behind the hydroponic growing process.

“I feel honored to have this (system),” Russon said. “Someday when FarmBox is enormous, I’ll be able to say we had this.”