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Rising Above Disabilities to Conquer Food Deserts

Food deserts become oases courtesy of hydroponic greenhouses staffed by adults with developmental disabilities

Photo of lou driever
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Abilities Connection (TAC)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 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.

Fellow members of the Growing Opportunities Partnership include Arnold Farms-WeGrow/MI; Developmental Disabilities Institute/NY; Greens Do Good/NJ; Lettuce Dream/MO; Medina Creative Produce/OH; The Murdoch Developmental Center/NC; Peacehaven Farm/NC; The Abilities Connection (TAC)/OH; Trellis Center/WA; Zeponic Farms/VA. The Ability Connection's extended network of support includes ties to the Ohio Farm Bureau, the Clark County Agricultural Society, the Better Business Bureau of Miami Valley, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Association of Adult Services, Source America, the Ability One Program and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. Fellow members of the Growing Opportunities Partnership enjoy close relationships and support from a variety of social service, vocational rehabilitation and agricultural associations in the regions where they are based. Regretfully, space does not allow for a full accounting of these affiliations

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 3-10 years

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

Springfield, Ohio

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?

The USDA identified “food deserts” on this map:

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Growing Opportunities Partnership is a coalition of ten hydroponic greenhouses located in eight states across the United States.  We each provide vocational rehabilitation to adults with developmental disabilities.  The individuals we are working with are drawn from our local communities.  They want to have the same opportunity to give back to their community that fully able people enjoy.  Since our respective greenhouses raise leafy greens (lettuce, microgreens, kale, etc.) we can fulfill their desires by making contribution to the local food banks.

We used the “food desert” map provided by the United States Department of Agriculture because in those areas, there are fewer opportunities for ALL consumers to enjoy fresh local nutritious produce.  This is even more critical for those who are food insecure due to poverty.  The value of our collective contributions will be multiplied by targeting these areas for our contributions.  It is important to provide the most impact possible – reducing food insecurity in these identified areas will meet that goal.

 Areas considered “food deserts” exist across the United States.  Our partnership also spans the country. Each of our member organizations is located either within or near an identified “food desert.”   Helping meet the needs of the food insecure in these areas means helping our neighbors – directly and immediately – with one of their most essential day to day requirements – food.

In 2020 our 10 partner organizations are based in 8 states (Ohio, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, Michigan and Missouri). The total area of food deserts within these 8 states is under 100,000 square kilometers. This is our initial area of focus - as we progress towards 2050 we will encourage other organizations follow our lead. By 2050 we hope to have a presence throughout the United States - working together towards our goal of turning food deserts into food oases across the country.

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.

While areas that the USDA has described as “food deserts” span then United States of America, there are some consistent characteristics that exemplify the areas and their residents. These locations by definition lack variety in fresh, nutritious, local produce.  These areas tend to be in hard-scrabble areas that haven’t enjoyed significant recent economic development.  This means that in general, residents of these areas tend to fall below the average level of income not only for the country as a whole but for their individual states.  Often upwardly mobile individuals strike out for more prosperous parts of the country, which contributes to these areas continuing to lag behind economically and engenders a sense of stagnance and being out of the mainstream.  As a result, these areas support repetitious (and less than nutritious) diets.

Areas considered “food deserts” often have few choices for the inhabitants seeking nutritious meals. People may be limited to heavily processed foods designed for long term storage rather than enjoying fresh nutritious “eat at home” options.  These areas tend to be urban locations; rural “food deserts” may be in areas that are not favorable for farming or in economically depressed areas where local markets have been driven out of business by chain stores (such as “Dollar General” or “Hollar”).   The main crops grown in the United States are corn, wheat and soybeans – none of which are intended for immediate consumption without processing.  Simply being in a rural area doesn’t mean that fresh nutritious food is readily available.

The effects of eating highly processed “convenience” food on the population of is well documented. Today’s population has more obesity related issues than in the past.  High chloresterol, high salt diets are regretfully common across the country but are particularly prevalent in “food desert” areas. This contributes to ongoing health issues –and societal health costs.  If affluent, well educated consumers freely make poor diet choices, it is even more likely that economically insecure members of the same community will mirror those nutritional errors.

 Ultimately – these folks are all our neighbors.  We want to help them.  We can help the more affluent by supplying them with fresh, nutritious, local produce year round at the farmer’s markets and restaurants. By establishing set asides to distribute through local food banks, we can ensure that the more vulnerable can enjoy the same health benefits.  We want to help improve our community’s health by improving their nutritional options.  This ensures that the food system doesn’t disrupt the health system.   Healthy neighbors allow us to improve our communities and result in a better world for us all.

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


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

Our food system’s complexity incorporates a wide range of vulnerabilities.  

In the short and long term, climate change issues will impact the availability of fresh, nutritious, local crops.  The extension of the Midwestern growing season by two weeks is offset by changing rain patterns. This combination favors different varietals and may ultimately lead to a change in the preferred crops grown in different latitudes.

Ongoing efforts to educate children and adults on healthy food choices enjoy incremental success.  Some segments of the population may not afford to purchase food that they know would be to their benefit.  This is accentuated in “food deserts.”  Ensuring that all segments of our community have equitable access to nutritious foods is and will continue to be a challenge.

The United States has been economically fortunate in recent years but those who reside in “food deserts” often have not shared in that prosperity.  Residents of the “Rustbelt,” who live in areas of significant urban blight or rural stagnation continue to see a significant percentage of their most capable and motivated community members leave for areas with greater potential.  This pattern suggests that the current economic malaise associated with “food deserts” will continue for decades to come.  While the US unemployment rate is currently 4%, for the disabled it is 9% nationally (and in Ohio, where I live it is over 13%).  If (when) the national unemployment rate increases, the rate for the disabled follows.

A stagnant economy influences the local culture. Lack of proper nutrition contributes to the lethargy of the community as a whole. Those who elect to remain in “food desert” areas often have longstanding ties to the land (or the neighborhood) that encourage them to define success in backward looking terms that may no longer be relevant to the larger culture. This ultimately splinters society and creates a mosaic of parallel communities making it harder to realize common goals.  

As technology’s complexity increases, so does it’s susceptibility to disruption. Supermarkets seldom carry more than 3 day’s supply of food on the shelves. A glitch can reverberate through a community and suddenly create an urban (or even rural) food shortage. As food logistics become more dependent on high tech coordination this also increases systemic vulnerability.

 The US food policy is driven by agri-business to focus on major crops (corn, wheat and soybeans) to the detriment of less prevalent produce.  While government programs like SNAP and WIC provide the means for low and no income consumers to access food, they don’t reward those who elect to purchase more nutritious offerings. If the government’s agricultural focus is driven by political contributions and their food purchasing assistance program’s orientation is vote driven, there seems little opportunity for major realignments in the coming 30 years.

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

Our vision is to provide the means for adults with developmental disabilities (an under-utilized labor resource) working in hydroponic greenhouses to demonstrate how fresh, nutritious, locally grown produce can be supplied year round in food deserts to mitigate the food insecurity of fellow members of their community.   Our intent is for each of the ten member greenhouses to donate 40 pounds of non-GMO leafy greens (lettuce, kale, etc.) each week for a year.  That would be 10 tons of produce donated in total (!) to community food banks for distribution in “food deserts.”

Hydroponic greenhouses can be established in urban areas immediate to the greatest food needs.  They can be built on rooftops or vacant sites to optimize space utilization.  These greenhouses are extremely sustainable, using less than 5% of the water and 1% of the land that the same plants need when grown in the soil.  With a controlled environment, they are far less susceptible to climate change effects.  As each seed is deliberately planted there are few if any weeds and if pesticide is required there is no chance for overspray contaminating the water table.

Ongoing relationships establish the setting to encourage consumers to make more informed nutrition choices by selecting locally grown, sustainable and nutritious produce.   By increasing the availability of fresh produce in “food deserts”, our consumers can learn to incorporate these products as components of their traditional diets.

Sharing the bounty of our harvests with those in need allows those who are food insecure to apply their available funds towards other means to improve their lot.  Instead of sharing produce “as available” by programming a set amount each week the food pantries can expect/program our distribution and the recipients can become more familiar with the products.  With a regular supply of nutritious food, people become more productive, which contributes to the incremental improvement of the community overall.   

Hydroponic greenhouses can be efficiently run with relatively minimal technological inputs.  A hydroponic system is essentially powered by a sump pump variant.  While the pH and nutrient are commonly calibrated by gauges, this can be accomplished using hand held devices costing less than $25.   Electricity (for grow lights and heat) is needed to maintain production throughout the winter months; but those demands aren’t extra-ordinary. If a solar array and battery are integrated into the system they are easily robust enough operate off the grid.

 This vision targets key elements for political policy makers:  addressing hunger issues within the community; distributing sustainably grown nutritious food; providing vocational rehabilitation for adults with developmental disabilities; and ensuring food banks have a predictable source for locally grown produce.  This model can be emulated across the country in a variety of settings with appropriate endorsement by relevant policy makers.

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.

If our initial model of ten hydroponic greenhouses distributing ten tons of produce annually is emulated it could easily scale up to 100 greenhouses sharing 100 tons of produce annually – or many, many more!

The socially disadvantaged hydroponic greenhouse workers would be gainfully employed and know that they are contributing to society by raising nutritious food for their community – not just those who can afford to purchase the produce but also those who are hungry or food insecure.  Expanding on our vision, other socially disadvantaged individuals (PTSD, deaf, formerly incarcerated, etc.) could find rewarding work in this setting.  This would not only increase their personal skill sets and economic well-being but also increase the tax base while feeding the hungry in a sustainable, earth friendly fashion.

Those in need will have access to free, nutritious food that will help them become more healthy and productive.  Having learned to integrate this produce into their diet, the habit will continue once they are able to purchase the product directly.  More affluent consumers who learn of the program may demonstrate their support by making deliberate choices to purchase from organizations who share the bounty of their harvest with the less fortunate.

In addition to creating jobs in the community for the greenhouse workers, this will also create jobs for those who re-purpose buildings or building sites into new greenhouses.  As these greenhouses spread across the urban landscape, neighborhoods will be transformed by new growth.  As more locally grown affordable produce becomes available year round, the “food deserts” will be turned into food oases.

 Across the country, additional manufacturing jobs will be created to meet the demand for hydroponic systems, lights and solar arrays.  Likewise there will be growth among those companies supplying nutrient, supplements and seeds for the greenhouses.  Together, incrementally, the broader economy will be improved.  

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

Adoption and replication of this model in the food deserts of the United States will transform the landscape by 2050.

Fresh food tastes best – and having fresh produce available year round provides significant incentive for consumers to make good choices.  While fresh leafy greens (lettuce, kale, etc.) are popular crops, hydroponic greenhouses can also easily produce tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, peas, blueberries and many other fruits and vegetables.  Customers accustomed to year round availability plan their food choices accordingly.  Ensuring fresh produce is available in food deserts will lead to this becoming a misnomer.

This vision incorporates a host of economic benefits.  The socially disadvantaged workers employed to raise the produce would otherwise be drawing state benefits.  Re-purposing urban rooftops, vacant lots and abandoned buildings for hydroponic grow sites makes idle assets productive – and brings them back onto the tax rolls to help fund ongoing community projects.  Fitting out greenhouses creates service and manufacturing jobs.  Donating produce to food banks for distribution to the hungry helps to offset the expenditures that the federal government makes directly to subsidize food distribution. 

As people eat more nutritious foods, they tend to become healthier.  Healthy people concentrate better and perform physical tasks more efficiently. They become more productive. Many food deserts are located in areas that economic prosperity has bypassed and consequently acquired a culture of despair and malaise.  By “jump starting” the residents diet, the energy generated can be harnessed to create a positive changes in the community.  Having nutritious food readily available will make the area more attractive to residents – and support the influx of fresh faces to diversify the milieu.  This food vision has the potential to positively transform communities.

The technology associated with this project is off the shelf and ready for immediate implementation. Hydroponic systems are common throughout the country – solar arrays to power them are available and suitable for almost every location in the United States.  The clear advantages of hydroponics over conventional include raising the same amount of food using only 5% of the water and 1% of the land.  With solar arrays the facilities can be independent of disruption due to blackouts, brownouts, hacking attacks or other technical vulnerabilities. Local food availability on a year round basis increases society’s design margin. In the next 30 years, advances in the efficiency of solar arrays and greenhouse support mechanisms (CO2 generators, cooling walls, shade cloth, etc.) will increase production capability.

By encouraging placement of hydroponic greenhouses as oases in the midst of food deserts the year round availability of fresh, local, nutritious produce will be assured. Policies that incentivize this activity will also impact urban renewal, jobs programs, reduce dependency of socially disadvantaged individuals on benefits programs, increase the local/state/federal tax bases and ultimately increase the physical (and consequently mental) well-being of the area’s population.  Commercial operators can expand into this niche and gain fully trained and skilled workers from those who are transitioning from vocational rehabilitation to fully integrated settings.  This combination of advantages (not even including the broad environment benefits) would seem to fully align with those of a government operating with the best interests of the public at heart.

The individuals raising the produce are members of the local community. Their daily interactions with job coaches generate a feedback loop to ensure their insights are available for action. Community leaders visiting greenhouses can voice the concerns of those they represent and return to share information on the benefits the facilities are making available (locally grown produce, environmental and economic benefits).  Trained workers can transition to help start new operations sharing valuable lessons learned along the way. Food bank and consumer feedback will help hydroponic operations gain insight into the desires and preferences of their end users.

In food deserts there is limited or no access to healthful, affordable food options (such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains).  Two primary factors leading to creation of these areas are lack of stores or markets distributing these items and the resident’s lack of transportation to travel to areas where these items are available.  This food vision addresses both these aspects.  Firstly we assure fresh, locally grown, non-GMO produce is available to food desert residents, regardless of their ability to pay. Secondly, by working with outlets within the food desert (stores, food banks and farmer’s markets) we mitigate the transportation challenge by shortening the logistic chain.

Systems focused approach.  This vision enables underutilized, socially disadvantaged members of the community to team together with food banks to create a new distribution channel for fresh produce on a year round basis, providing food to those most in need.  By using hydroponic greenhouses, this produce can be grown in urban areas, minimizing transportation costs and ensuring it is readily available to the food insecure members of our communities. Better nutrition will lead to improved health which allows greater productivity – the increased individual energy levels will percolate through the community to lift the pall of malaise and lethargy common to food deserts.  The policy makers supporting this vision can provide the means to increase the general health and welfare of residents in food deserts by encouraging the use of underutilized work forces to spare a fraction of their weekly food production to existing food banks.  The greenhouses employ residents of the food deserts which helps the local economy, provides a mechanism to “spread the word” through the local grapevine of the availability of fresh produce year round and provides grass roots influence to positively changing the culture.  The sustainable, low environmental impact nature of hydroponic greenhouses mitigates against the influence of climate change on crop growth and allows repurposing of idle assets (vacant lots, rooftops, abandoned buildings). Replacing urban blight with a bright, shiny greenhouse full of verdant green crops provides another way to lift the spirits of residents of drab urban food deserts.

Transformative potential.  This vision seeks to transform lives.  The socially disadvantaged greenhouse workers (adults with developmental disabilities, PTSD, physical handicaps or other challenges) have the opportunity to gain skills and experience - and become self-actualized by being able to contribute productively to the community. That provides an emotional and spiritual lift to all involved. Those who are food insecure not only receive nourishment – they are able to access food that is locally grown, nutritious and available year round.  Having the chance to enjoy and appreciate this produce, they will be more likely to make healthy food choices in future, when they have personal control over their diet.  Eating healthy leads to better health – better health enables more mental and physical activity – that energy surplus can be channeled productively into improving the community overall.  The food bank managers are able to anticipate and distribute regular weekly donations to ensure that the fresh produce efficiently reaches those in need. This significantly increases the effectivity of their operations. Placement of greenhouses in areas of urban blight transforms the look of a community. The modest environmental footprint can allow marginal land to become productive again.  Our membership has already taken positives steps to re-purpose urban buildings locations as diverse as Hackensack, New Jeresy and Springfield and Medina, Ohio.  Whether greenfield/brownfield construction, repurposing an underutilized structure or creating a rooftop garden, hydroponic greenhouses transform the urban landscape efficiently and elegantly. This vision will capture the enthusiasm of urban planners, agencies supporting vocational rehabilitation opportunities, groups focused on combatting hunger and those who wish to minimize the effect of increased agricultural production on the environment.

Community.  Food deserts exist across the United States and tend to be in areas where economic development has failed to keep up with the mainstream.  Hydroponic greenhouses will thrive in these locations, using otherwise underutilized members of the community to grow crops that will feed not only affluent members of the community but those in need.  This transcends the barriers of race and ethnicity – we all want to eat fresh, healthy food.  It’s even better when grown locally by members of our own community.  The ten current members of our coalition work closely with our food banks, our workers-in-training and our communities to ensure that accurate and timely feedback loops allow us to provide the produce needed at the correct time and place.  We have each pursued these goals separately – now it’s time to join forces and realize this vision together.

 Inspiration.  This vision has drawn together ten diverse stakeholders from across the country. We are now working together to better achieve what we have been working towards independently. Our goal is not just to fight hunger in our communities. We want to enable our socially disadvantaged workers-in-training to share the produce they’ve raised with those less fortunate than themselves.  This produce is not merely empty calories – it’s fresh, locally grown produce available year round – raised in the food desert by fellow members of the community.  Ultimately – we want to inspire a thousand hydroponic greenhouses to bloom – and transform food deserts into food oases.  

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website
  • The website for the National Center for Appropriate Technology
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Attachments (2)

Food System Vision Prize - Proposed Evaluation Criteria.docx

This outlines the proposed measure of our progress towards achieving our vision.

Growing Opportunity Partnership Members.docx

Introduction to our team members


Join the conversation:

Photo of Samantha Lyons

This makes such a difference to Springfield and those who are able to be employed in a setting that is right for them!!!

Photo of lou driever

Thank you Sam - we want to ensure that those who want to contribute have the opportunity. Currently only 35 percent of Americans aged 18-64 are included in the workforce. Our goal is to change that number - and at the same time reduce the number of food insecure members of our community. What a blessing to be able to do both at the same time!

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