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Solving childhood hunger today while training the agronauts of tomorrow

We envision students growing food in the last frontier that will feed both today’s Alaskans and tomorrow’s pioneers to the final frontier.

Photo of Lorrie Irwin
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Space Farming Institute

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.facebook.com/Space-Farming-Institute-110772590359502/

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

  • 1-3 years

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

Anchorage, Alaska

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?

Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

As a long time Alaskan and Anchorage resident, I have enjoyed many midnight-sun summers and winters with Northern lights blazing in the sky. I moved to Anchorage as a child. Living next to Chester Creek for the last 40 years, the wilds of Alaska are always close by with moose, eagles and the occasional black bears visiting my urban backyard.

Anchorage is a circumpolar city on the front lines of climate change and we need to adapt faster than the rest of America. We possess a unique pioneering spirit. I want to help our city thrive and to be a part of this exciting transformation by using new green technologies. I want to be at the forefront of creating a modern sustainable city that is ranked highest in friendliness and livability, by creating a perpetual and sustainable solution for food security for my town and our state. 

Our short Arctic growing seasons do not provide a constant source of locally grown fresh produce. Our youth do not know how to grow fresh food for themselves or their families. We import 95% of the food we eat. I have lived through volcanic eruptions that impacted air travel, earthquakes that threaten food shipments, and labor strikes in Seattle that have caused delays in shipment of food to Alaska. I am deeply passionate about sharing knowledge of growing fresh food as well as about solving childhood hunger. In my state, new perspectives and attitudes are required as well as new technology in order to accomplish these goals. By embracing science, technology, engineering, and genetics I can teach students how to grow and produce locally using hydroponics, which will create food security. Once this grassroots model is proven, I hope to share it widely within Alaska and beyond.



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.

Anchorage is bordered to the east by the majestic peaks and sunrises of Chugach State Park and to the west by long slow sunsets over the Cook Inlet. Anchorage enjoys a subarctic climate characterized by long, usually very cold winters, and short, cool to mild summers. Visitors to Anchorage will quickly notice its striking natural beauty as well as its isolation. Roughly 3,000 miles northwest of Seattle - a three hour plane ride over endless snowy peaks and the expansive Gulf of Alaska - Anchorage is uniquely isolated when compared to other US cities of comparable size. The Anchorage area has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years by the Dena'ina people, who practiced subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering - an ancient food system that still sustains people today. Now the largest city in Alaska, Anchorage has roughly 300,000 residents who make up nearly half of Alaska’s population. It is a city of remarkable diversity, resilience, innovation, and Alaskan spirit. 

In the summer, Anchorage is known as the City of Flowers. With our long hours of sunlight and cool weather, our flowers display vibrant colors and larger blooms. Our municipality plants 461 flower beds and cares for over a thousand hanging baskets. Anchorage is a bustling city with a love of life from our numerous bike/ski trails, to our many local restaurants, bars, galleries, museums and performing arts centers. Anchorage is also home to the largest floatplane base in the world, so fly-in bear viewing tours, fishing charters, and glacier tours make for especially memorable day trips. Anchorage is a community where more than 100 languages from around the world are spoken in our homes, schools, businesses, and parks.  Anchorage is an experienced transportation gateway of both the Pacific Rim and the circumpolar North, from the marine systems and railways to our airports. Anchorage is the nexus to the rest of the Last Frontier and is a transshipment hub for the world. In December 2019, NASA announced that they are again going to launch American rockets on American soil, including out of Alaska spaceports in Fairbanks (north of Anchorage) and Kodiak (southwest of Anchorage). 

Anchorage is simultaneously urban and wild, serving as home to major corporations as well as to an estimated 1,500 moose and plenty of bald eagles, bears, beavers, lynx, fox, and more. Though it has many strong points, Anchorage also has deep challenges, ranging from domestic violence and homicide to homelessness and hunger. A 2016 Feeding America report found that about 1 in 7 Alaskans struggle with hunger, and 20% of Alaska kids live in homes that may not have enough food. (https://www.foodbankofalaska.org/hunger-in-alaska/facts-about-hunger/) 



What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

5079

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

300000

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

Food security is a measure of the availability of food and individuals' ability to access it. The final report of the 1996 World Food Summit states that food security "exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life." Food security is a significant challenge to Alaska now, and without serious changes, it will be a crippling challenge by 2050. In Anchorage, the combination of geographic isolation and dependence on imported food augments all other challenging aspects of the food system, including: 

- Economics: Anchorage relies heavily on food shipped from the port of Tacoma, Washington (1,695 nautical miles away). According to the Alaska Food Policy Council, 95% of all food purchased in Alaska is imported, at a cost of $5 billion annually. 

- Environment: Agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses, due to methane and nitrous oxide emissions from cattle and fertilizer use, as well as deforestation related to herding and feeding livestock. Alaska’s food system that relies on long-distance shipping means that transportation of food is also impacting climate change. 

- Culture: Intimately linked to the effects of climate change is the continuing viability of subsistence hunting and fishing, practiced by indigenous Alaska Native peoples for over 10,000 years. Both culture and practical economics contribute to hunting and fishing being vital practices for Alaskan families to have enough to eat year-round. Imported food is expensive, but protein that is fished or hunted - particularly in and around Arctic waters (fish, seabirds, whales, seals, etc.) is quickly growing scarce due to die-offs and changes in migration patterns. 

- Diets: Food imported over such long distances loses significant nutritional value. The University of California found that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 percent of vitamin C within a week - which compounds the problem of general nutritional declines noted by a landmark University of Texas study comparing USDA nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. The Texas study credited this decline to agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) rather than increasing or even maintaining nutritional content.

- Technology: Alaskan produce can reach record sizes - but outdoor farming in Alaska is unforgiving, with a very short growing season and little room for either beginner error or crop failure. Technological developments in hydroponics could be a game-changer for Alaskan agriculture, but hydroponics is not commonly understood or practiced - yet. 

- Policy: Anchorage relies on a limited number of farms in Matanuska Valley, 45 minutes away, for locally grown fresh food. Anchorage zoning does not allow widespread urban agriculture; there are just 4 community gardens for the entire city. Anchorage does not have a chapter of the Farm Bureau to represent local growers.

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

Alaska has a lot in common with NASA’s Artemis project, from our inaccessibility issues to our arctic climate with long months of freezing weather and darkness. We uniquely understand what a Lunar or Martian colony will need. We need to grow all of our own fresh produce locally using new sustainable systems like deep space colonization that are adaptable to our city and climate needs.

In 2019, I founded the Space Farming Institute to teach Alaskan students how astronauts are growing food on the International Space Station in preparation for living on the Moon and Mars. Space Farming Institute is at the intersection of food, soil, water, climate, sustainable agriculture, biofuels, technology, and space exploration. I teach students about science, technology, engineering, math, chemistry, genetics, and self-reliance by using hydroponics. 

My vision is to expand Space Farming Institute’s work beyond individual classrooms and to create an urban research and teaching farm that will grow and provide a perpetual source of fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables to the community. Kids will learn how to grow food, take food home, and share their gardening successes with their families and neighbors, helping our community be healthy and food sufficient. 

By creating a high-volume production farm, Anchorage will gain food independence, no longer needing to ship produce from thousands of miles away. This will save billions of dollars, that can be reinvested into Alaska. Locally grown food on this farm will be more climate-friendly, by avoiding conventional fertilizer, relying on organic soil amendments, and cutting down on related long-distance transportation emissions. Indigenous cultural practices of hunting, fishing, and gathering food for one’s own family and community will be complemented when families have access to new technology for home-farming fruits and vegetables to supplement their diets. The locally grown food will have greater nutritional value, not having been shipped in cold storage for weeks on end, and due to being grown with nutrition-oriented rather than commodity-oriented practices. As part of my vision, changes in city zoning and other food production-related policy will support the locally-grown system.

By continuously researching and sharing what we’ve learned about the best ways to grow nutritious foods year-round in Anchorage, we will connect kids and their families back to nature and where their food comes from. By changing policies to allow gardens in schools and all over the city, and by using science, technology, engineering, math, scientific writing, robotics, and culinary arts we will teach children sustainable perspectives on our world and healthy eating habits for life. 

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.

Once Anchorage has addressed its food security challenges, the city will have the infrastructure and household technical expertise for people to grow their own fruits and vegetables year-round. Anchorage workers will be on the leading-edge of the new green economy, ready and able to meet the job demands of growing food in Alaska. Green investments will be enabled and supported through targeted public expenditure, policy reforms and changes in taxation and regulation. Green industries like urban agriculture, biogenetics, green architecture, eco-technology, biological system engineering, bio-recycling/waste management, and energy efficiency retrofits, will employ skilled Anchorage workers, putting Alaska on the road to economic diversity and shared prosperity - which is sorely needed as the oil-driven economy continues to change. These benefits are closely aligned with a pair of core values of many Alaskans - independence and helping each other out. 

In addition to teaching our youth how to grow their own food, we will be sharing our harvests with local food charities to help feed hungry kids. As the population of Anchorage has grown, so has our need to help feed the hungry. The Anchorage School District reported 46,794 students enrolled in our Municipality in the 2018-2019 school year. Childhood hunger statistics for Anchorage average 24% according to the Food Bank. However, our school district department of Student Nutrition reported that 47% of the students required assistance through the federal and state free and reduced-price meals programs, meaning 21,993 students last year needed help with food in Anchorage every day. The Space Farming Institute’s vision will build Anchorage’s agricultural capacity to be able to start 55,000 plants per week, harvest 220,000 plants each month, and feed all children-in-need a nutritious afternoon snack 5 days a week. 

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

In order to achieve my Space Farming Institute vision of building out Anchorage’s infrastructure and youth-led expertise to grow enough food to feed all hungry children in the city, we will need to grow a significant volume of food. To do this, we will create an indoor Bioregenerative Living Lab System (Living Lab), like a colony on the moon. The Living Lab will use hydroponic equipment and supplies, the food grown in it will be available to our community in the event of the next disaster such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or shipping strikes. We will use our army of student and master gardener volunteers to grow enough food to share with our partner agencies for use in their neighborhood food pantries, soup kitchens and food banks to help feed Alaska’s hungry kids and their families. Once proven this program can be scaled and duplicated throughout Alaska, especially in our remote villages.  

The Living Lab will be a state-of-the-art urban food growing facility and futuristic urban farm that will research the best ways to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables indoors year-round creating food sustainability in Anchorage and Alaska. We will solve childhood hunger today by utilizing the latest research on deep space colonization here on Earth. Food grown on-site will be sold to local residents, restaurants, hospital cafeterias, and the school district. Our bioregenerative growing operation will initially start with a variety of leafy green vegetables and herbs. As we grow we will add additional systems to include research and sales into edible flowers as well as root vegetables. We will contribute to making Anchorage and Alaska food secure. Revenues will support our research programs and be reinvested into Space Farming Institute programs.

The Living Lab is an example of bio intensive agriculture, an organic agricultural system that focuses on achieving maximum yields from the minimum area of space, while simultaneously increasing biodiversity and food security. The goal of the method is long term sustainability on a closed-system basis. It has been used successfully on small-scale commercial farms and is particularly effective for urban gardeners, smallholder farmers in developing countries. For backyard growers using a tower garden approach, 6.25 square feet can produce about as much food as a 40-square-foot raised bed. Apply this math to urban agriculture facilities several stories high in larger cities and you can easily see how they can become a perpetual and sustainable answer to food security.

The Living Lab will be a closed-loop system. Closed-loop agriculture not only stops the waste of nutrients to watercourses as pollution, but it can also reduce the high energy inputs needed for artificial nitrogen production and could go a significant way towards reducing overall agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In order to meet our international greenhouse gas reduction targets, we need to explore every angle possible and adopt every measure that works to lower greenhouse gas emissions. This closed-loop form of hydroponic regenerative agricultural practice preserves the nutrients and using carbon or sequestering carbon levels allows urban farming to be carried out on a sustainable basis. In controlled ecosystems like this, consisting of many complex symbiotic relationships among plants, fish, and microorganisms, a multiplicity of biogeochemical cycles operate to maintain the balance of nature. Oxygen is produced and carbon dioxide is fixed as biomass by autotrophic photosynthesizers energized by solar radiation. Drip irrigation lines and simple pumps recirculate and move water and nutrient solutions where they need to go. Companion planting of various crops together can both increase harvest weight and increase crop flavors/nutrition content. By combining human ingenuity and natural processes we will investigate and practice sustainable living opportunities. We will use cutting edge technology from LED Lighting, bioreactors, biodigesters, and innovative new agriculture techniques. We will utilize a variety of different hydroponic systems in a controlled setting to grow fresh produce in a nutrient solution. This process grows fruits and vegetables 4 times faster using 90 percent less water in a closed-loop system. Cost-effective LED grow-lights above the plants emit light at the correct wavelength for photosynthesis specific to each plant variety.

Whole Systems Thinking is required for this solution to food security, from its use of the natural features of biology and chemistry to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams” and recycling of all aspects in the closed system. This means we will recycle and reuse our green waste as much as possible reducing impacts on urban landfills. Closed-loop regenerative hydroponic systems, in comparison with open systems, have the advantage of efficiency in water and nutrient usage. Unlike traditional soil-based agriculture, hydroponics is a technology that provides an indoor food production solution which is positive for our human health as well as the health of our environment. Closed-loop agriculture can protect and enhance environmental water quality by eliminating pollution from sewage and by returning agricultural nutrients to the growing process which is more stable and resistant to erosion in field runoff.

The Living Lab will use the bio-fermentation process to recover and add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity back into our nutrient solutions. Our biomass of plant roots, nonedible plant parts and produce leaves will be recycled in two ways: (1) biomass and nutrients will be returned to the growing system through a bioreactor, using bacteria in an aerobic system to break down and unlock nutrients from the biomass making the nutrients available to feed the next produce harvest, and (2) biomass and nutrients will be used to fuel a  biodigester, using bacteria in an anaerobic system will break down the biomass into gases that make biofuels (biomethane) and can be used to power the hydroponic pumps and LED lighting, making our carbon footprint neutral. Additionally, hydroponics systems do not generally use genetically modified organisms, pesticides or fecal based fertilizers that lead to salmonella and e-coli outbreaks.

By leading space farming programs to Train the Agronauts of Tomorrow, community events focused on the wonder of space exploration, we hope to help our children succeed, our community thrive, and our nation reach for the stars. 



How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Referral from a local foundation

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Hi! Developing a resilient and self-sufficient food community is vital as we move into the future. You're moving in the right direction! Best of luck to you. If you get the chance, take a look at our project. We too are dealing with resiliency and self-sufficiency. https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/mati-pani-asa-regeneration-of-hope-health-land-community-in-the-face-of-extreme-poverty-climate-crisis?fbclid=IwAR3lZ2BsNYOC_RMqDhwgI0gIVPAKLZhAXUVQ_KdxqhFRxeE2FcwyIJ1OSDk