Some vertical farms grow greens in old warehouses, former steel mills, or other sites set apart from the heart of cities. But a new series of projects will build multistory greenhouses directly inside affordable housing developments.
“Bringing the farm back to the city center can have a lot of benefits,” says Nona Yehia, CEO of Vertical Harvest, a company that will soon break ground on a new building in Westbrook, Maine, that combines a vertical farm with affordable housing. Similar developments will follow in Chicago and in Philadelphia, where a farm-plus-housing will be built in the Tioga District, an opportunity zone.
“I think what we’ve truly understood in the past year and a half—although we’ve been rooted in it all along—is that we have in this country converging economic, climate, and health crises that are rooted in people’s access to healthy food, resilient, nourishing jobs, and fair housing,” Yehia says. “And we saw this as an urban redevelopment tool that has the potential to address all three.”
The company launched in 2015 on a vacant lot in Jackson, Wyoming, aiming in part to create jobs for people with physical and developmental disabilities in the area. In 2019, it got a contract from Fannie Mae to explore how its greenhouses could help with the challenge of food security and nutrition, studying how a farm could be integrated into an existing affordable housing development in Chicago as a model for new projects.
Now, as it moves forward with the Chicago project and expands to other cities, it will also create new jobs for people who might have otherwise had difficulty finding work, working with local stakeholders to identify underserved populations. “Part of this is providing healthy, nutritious food,” Yehia says, “but also jobs at livable wages. We’re positioning all of our firms to address the new minimum wage level of $15 an hour with a path towards career development.”
Inside each building, the ground level will offer community access, while the greenhouse fills the second, third, and fourth floors, covering 70,000 square feet and growing around a million pounds of produce a year. (The amount of housing varies by site; in Maine, the plan includes 50 unites of housing, and the project will also create 50 new jobs.) In Chicago, there may be a community kitchen on the first level. In each location, residents will be able to buy fresh produce on-site; Vertical Harvest also plans to let others in the neighborhood buy greens directly from the farm. While it will sell to supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, and other large customers, it also plans to subsidize 10-15% of its harvest for local food pantries and other community organizations. “By creating a large-scale farm in a food desert we are creating a large source of healthy, locally grown food 365 days a year,” she says.
Correction: We’ve updated this article to note that the project in Maine has 50 units of housing, not 15, and the company received a contract—not a grant—from Fannie Mae.