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A Commercial Indoor Farm to Feed, Employ, and Empower Urban Populations in the U.S.A.

We will build a commercial hydroponic system that will feed and employ residents of St. Louis in a sustainable fashion.

Photo of Venkat Papolu
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

St. Louis Indoor Produce

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Justine Petersen Housing and Reinvestment Corporation, a Missouri not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation, wholly owns a U.S. Department of Treasury-certified Community Development Financial Institution, Great Rivers Community Capital. JP’s mission of connecting institutional resources with the needs of low- to moderate income families so they may build long-term assets is fulfilled by its products, which include credit building and financial education, homeownership preparation and retention, and micro-enterprise lending and training. It is a company that combines effective response to demand with an efficient and effective business model. Since inception in 1997, JP and Great Rivers have: Originated over $100 million in small business /micro-enterprise loans and $16 million in small dollar loans to 12,000 people that were unable to access financing any place else; Provided technical assistance and training to over 12,000 micro-entrepreneurs

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.slip.farm

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

St. Louis, MO.

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

St. Louis, Missouri is in the United States and covers an area of 170km^2. Our vision is specifically for the Near North Side neighborhood.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We are Venkat Papalou and Matt Mcwilliams, two young professionals living in St. Louis. We started St. Louis Indoor Produce in 2017. The farm was born out of a desire to help the planet--and the people of a city we love--by promoting a sustainable way to grow food in an urban setting. Matt is a St. Louis native, born and raised in the north side of the city, while Venkat is a transplant from California, who was drawn to the region by its promise for starting a business. Venkat has a background in business and left his office job in order to focus on answering questions of food scarcity and lowering the environmental impact of production. He has used his business knowledge to start the company, secure funding, build prototypes, make revenue, and employ locals. Matt is an engineer experienced in building and innovating technical systems, and has been key in designing an effective commercial system for SLIP. He has engineered our LED grow-lights, which have proven to be immediately effective and efficient. We are united by our belief that a good diet made of nutritious foods directly leads to a better, stronger community. We want to provide the produce necessary to complete that diet to the people of our city.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

This vision will focus on the Near North Side neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, a Midwestern city of just over 300,000 people. It is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, which made it a major hub of industry until the mid 20th century. Since 1950, the city has seen a steady decline in population, which has left a large amount of abandoned industrial infrastructure across the city. From the 2010 to 2018, St. Louis lost more than 4,500 residents. Today, major employers in the city include the healthcare industry, Boeing, and Monsanto. Despite the presence of these industries, unemployment is a big problem in St. Louis. In poorer neighborhoods, such as the Near North Side, where our farm is located, unemployment is at 26%--more than five times the national average. 

 

St. Louis has a rich cultural heritage. It is known for its jazz music, barbecue food, and its important role in American westward expansion. Nationally, St. Louis has developed a reputation for violence and racial strife, especially following the unrest in Ferguson in 2014. The city is sharply segregated in a phenomenon known locally as the “Delmar Divide.” Neighborhoods north of Delmar Boulevard are 98% black and overwhelmingly below the poverty line, while those south of the street are 70% white and have nearly a 3x greater median income. This de facto segregation has created a culture of separation and fear as well as an overwhelming sense of disconnect in the city as a whole.

 

Though many of these statistics are grim, the people of St. Louis are passionate about their city and eager to improve life here. Revitalization efforts are underway in many parts of the city. In 2018, the area surrounding the Gateway Arch was completely transformed and redesignated as a national park. The city enjoys numerous free museums, a vibrant art scene, and a growing restaurant culture. St. Louis’s diverse communities are its biggest asset as the city continues to recover and reinvent itself.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

350000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

 Like many Americans, the residents of St. Louis lack access to nutrient-rich vegetables and fresh produce. This challenge is even more significant in the predominatly-black northern part of the city, which is where our growhouse is located. 70% of black residents of the city of St. Louis live in areas considered to be food deserts. Since these areas lack grocery stores, residents are dependent on convenience stores or fast food restaurants--both of which lack nutritious options such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, public transportation in the city is limited, and many residents in food deserts do not have personal vehicles. In the New North Side neighborhood, where SLIP is currently located, the nearest grocery store is 1.3 miles away, which is closer than options in many other neighborhoods. However, the downtown location of this store is prohibitive to residents--not only is the market geared towards a more upscale clientele that the city hopes to draw downtown, but also the route to the store is considered by many residents to be dangerous. Open, vacant lots, abandoned properties, poor street lights, and a broken street grid keep residents from making the trek to healthier options.


As we look to the future and consider the state of St. Louis’s food system in the next thirty years, we see many of these challenges becoming amplified, especially as our climate continues to rapidly change and the downtown area of St. Louis continues to gentrify. 


Locally-grown produce is good for the earth and for its people--there is a high demand for locally grown organic food on an individual level and a commercial level. Families want the best produce for their children, and restaurants and markets want to provide the best products to their customers. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

At St. Louis Indoor Produce, we have spent the last three years working to address the challenges of food scarcity, unemployment, and under-utilized infrastructure in our community. We have been successful on a small scale—as a team of three people, we have built a vertical hydroponics system capable of generating over 300 lbs of produce weekly in a limited (200 sq ft) space. Our scalable model produces more than 1 lb of food per square foot--doubling the typical yield expectation of small-scale agricultural operations. Furthermore (and unexpectedly!) we have also designed an entirely new horticultural lighting system that is more efficient than anything currently on the market, which has helped us to grow even more food each week. Our produce is available in several local grocery stores and co-ops, and we have an educational hydroponics set-up installed at the St. Louis Science Center. We are deeply involved with our community and have made a positive impact on our neighborhood’s food culture, but our next challenge is to scale up our production in order to make a real difference in the city.


We envision expanding our current operation into a much larger commercial space that will not only provide healthy, sustainable food for the residents of St. Louis, but will also create dozens of jobs in an economically-depressed part of the city. With the funds from the Vision Grant, we will acquire and repurpose an abandoned building to create a commercial scale hydroponics farm capable of producing thousands of pounds of produce. We will employ members of our community to help run every part of the farm--planting seeds, harvesting produce, and packaging the product for distribution-- providing much-needed jobs as well as the specialized training and knowledge necessary for the future of food production. We will also increase our production of our patent-pending LED lights, which utilize liquid cooling technology that allow us to operate them at a higher wattage, which increases the amount of photons our crops get (putting us well within the ideal light spectrum for efficient plant growth).


Hydroponics systems are ideal for the sort of urban revitalization St. Louis needs because they can be set up and run cheaply in already-existing warehouses spaces. They are energy efficient and easy to operate, which will make our farms an asset to the local economy as well. Our current operation in the Greencubator requires three full-time employees to maintain. We have partnered with the Missouri Foundation for Health to specifically focus on training and employing low-income individuals in our community. As we expand, we are looking forward to continuing our commitment to offering jobs to underserved populations. Furthermore, we plan to continue our community outreach by teaching low-income community members how to build their own low-cost hydroponics set-ups so that they can grow healthy produce in their own homes. Education is a key part of our mission at SLIP.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

We envision a future of growing for St. Louis—growing of communities, growing of a sense of connectedness and civil pride, and, of course, growing of fresh produce. We envision towers of leafy greens bringing color and new life to abandoned buildings; people taking ownership of their food and pride in their ability to produce it locally. We envision organic basil, bok choi, kale, and other nutritious crops in abundance year-round. We envision ourselves as a key player in the revitalization of St. Louis.

 

At St. Louis Indoor Produce, we sincerely believe that a community’s capacity to thrive is directly impacted by the access its residents have to good nutrition. People need fuel to make social change, and we want to fuel the people of St. Louis as they work hard to redefine our city. Our vision is an expansion of the indoor farming system we have already proven to be both cheap and effective, leading to better access to produce, more jobs, fewer abandoned buildings, and a healthier St. Louis overall. We also plan to focus on increasing the production and distribution of our energy-efficient LED lights, which we think will have a positive environmental impact that expands far beyond our city. We want to inspire others through our model.

 

We are committed to providing safe, nutritious, pesticide-free produce to our community, all while helping to kickstart St. Louis’s agricultural economy by keeping our products local, sustainable, and responsible. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?


Once a growing city of booming industry and exciting cultural capital of the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, has fallen on hard times in the past half century. Steady population decline since the 1950s, paired with de facto segregation, racial strife, and a high crime rate have left many residents struggling to get by. The poverty rate, especially in the majority-black northern part of the city, is very high, as is unemployment. One survey of residents of the Near North Side neighborhood shows that for 11,883 residents, only 5,208 were able to find jobs locally (2015). This general sense of economic depression extends into the food industry. Many communities in the city are considered to be food deserts, leaving residents dependent on fast food restaurants and packaged convenience store fare to feed their families. Even when fresh produce is available in grocery stores, the majority is shipped in from Mexico and California, which contributes to heightened carbon emissions and large-scale food waste. Moreover, in 2019 alone, there were at least three major outbreaks of salmonella found nationwide in this out-of-town produce. St. Louis is hungry for positive change and many people are working tirelessly in the city to bring it about. At St. Louis Indoor Produce, we want to fuel this change by providing residents with fresh, pesticide free produce, grown year-round locally.


To address the food deserts, Justine Petersen Housing and Reinvestment Corporation (Justine PETERSEN) designed the Justine PETERSEN (JP) Greencubator a comprehensive, community-driven economic development project that supports the economic development of St. Louis’ impoverished Near North Side Neighborhood. To that end, JP Greencubator increases sustainable employment opportunities in the targeted low-income, limited resource community.  The overall goal of the JP Greencubator is to restore a distressed urban area into a thriving community through urban agriculture and traditional farming methods.  The JP Greencubator produces healthy organic produce and sustainable jobs, one seed at a time.  Justine Petersen a neighborhood organization opened the Greencubator in 2018. The JP Greencubator is a Department of Health and Human Services Community Economic Development program funded project with a mission of fighting food injustice in St. Louis. SLIP was awarded a chance to utilize this rehabilitated building to develop an indoor scalable agricultural system.

 

The vertical hydroponics systems that SLIP has worked for the last three years to develop are an ideal solution to the food crisis facing the city. Our systems can be put together cheaply and quickly in already-existing warehouses spaces and other bare-bones structures—in a city with a great deal of abandoned industrial infrastructure, this is an obvious fit. Our hydroponics set-up are energy efficient and easy to operate, which will allow them to blend seamlessly and beneficially into our local economy. Even the smallest detail--their vertical orientation--is deliberate, and designed with the desire to conserve space in mind. We have determined how to keep the costs of hydroponics extremely low--our model costs a quarter of what a commercially-available set-ups sell for. Keeping costs non-prohibitive is essential to our mission. The model we have designed is extremely scalable and able to produce up to 1 pound of produce per square foot of space--this is more than double the expectation for small-scale farms. Our style of growing uses less water than traditional agriculture, which makes it much more sustainable as well.


In addition to reimaging hydroponics in a more affordable way, we have developed our own commercial LED lighting system that makes our model ideal for expansion in St. Louis. These LED lights use patent-pending liquid cooling technology to provide light to our plants--this allows us to operate the lights at a much higher voltage than other models, which leads to an increase in the photons our plants receive. We developed these lights to fall within the ideal spectrum of light for plant growth, and we are proud of the results. Our commercial lights are now available and sought-after by other farmers.


We have proven the potential of our hydroponics system, and we are ready to begin operating on a much larger scale and really making a difference in St. Louis. Our vision is to scale up our current system in a larger commercial space in order to provide the healthy, sustainable food the people of St. Louis need to thrive, all while creating jobs and economic growth in the city. Thanks to our partnership with the Missouri Foundation for Health, we currently employ three full-time employees. As we grow our farm, jobs will be created instantly. We are committed to hiring and training low income individuals directly from our community. We are determined to remain a community farm even as we scale up--we are St. Louisans growing food for St. Louis. We want St. Louis produce to end up on the dinner plates of St. Louis residents. The farm of our vision is able to produce tons of produce year-round--from the hottest day of summer to the coldest of winter--in the most sustainable way. We want to ensure that local vendors will always have the option to buy and distribute fresh, locally grown basil. In the last three years we have worked hard to develop long-lasting relationships with local vendors, ranging from restaurant owners to local grocers and produce distributors. We have found that everyone is willing to pay a little more in order to support a local business, and also to ensure that they are serving their customers the freshest, highest quality produce. SLIP has become recognizable and respected in our community. St. Louis is rooting for us! People want to see us succeed. 


We envision a future of growth for St. Louis--growth of communities, growth of a sense of connectedness and civil pride, and, of course, the growth of fresh produce. We envision towers of leafy greens bringing color and new life to abandoned buildings; people taking ownership of their food and pride in their ability to produce it locally. We envision organic basil, bok choi, kale, and other nutritious crops in abundance year-round. We envision ourselves as a key player in the revitalization of St. Louis.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • recommended to apply

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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