'Salad Bar Project' classroom prototype could lead to
By Lou Fancher
Rising from a 20-gallon, soilless base and lit with an eerie white glow, organic agriculture in Cindy Gershen's Mt. Diablo High School classroom grows in one direction -- up.
Bursting from open pockets in a newly-assembled Tower Garden, organic greens flourish fan-like and scent the air like an outdoor garden in midsummer. Invented by former Walt Disney World Epcot Center greenhouse manager Tim Blank, the innovative gardening mechanism is "aeroponic," using only water and air and simple seeds fed a mineral solution developed by food and nutrition experts to produce fruits and vegetables. In many ways, a Tower Garden is like a high-tech version of Jack's beanstalk.
At the same time, Gershen -- a culinary instructor and caterer who heads up Wellness City Challenge -- and a group of cohorts have applied to the USDA for a $400,000 grant to establish the Sustainable Local Food Systems Innovation Center and Demonstration Farms.
The federal funding would be used to create an agribusiness startup incubator especially aimed at launching economic opportunities for communities of color, Native Americans, immigrants, women and veterans.
And a second, $200,000 grant submitted to the AETNA Foundation will support an Innovation Center Phase One expansion of the "Salad Bar Project," begun with the Tower Garden in Gershen's Sustainable Hospitality classroom.
"We're going to build the prototype in the classroom," Gershen said. "But you can't get sustainable anything if it's not connected to job growth."
The mention of creating jobs out of ideas introduces Pamela Singh, a former banking executive and executive director of Wellness City Challenge, a nonprofit founded by Gershen to promote healthier diets in Contra Costa County. Singh will hold the same position with the Innovation Center.
"I'm a collaborator in an antipoverty movement in our community," Singh said. "We can provide direct services and raise a person up, but ultimately, they have to have a job."
The Salad Bar Project is a collaboration between the Sustainable Hospitality program, Wellness City Challenge, Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa and Earth Faith Food, a project of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County.
With goals to buy eight growing towers and establish a 125-member student-run production company that will pay students $9 per hour to deliver salad bar ingredients to the school and collaborating partners, Gershen said, "The first opportunity is to change the food in the schools. That's immediate. After that, it's living wages for the community."
The Innovation Center project "scales up" Phase One, Singh said, and brings together additional community-based organizations. Support comes from the city of Concord, the Workforce Development Board of Contra Costa County and the Governor's Office of Economic Development. Partners include urban-rural linkage representatives from Sustainable Agriculture Education, the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, fiscal sponsor The Praxis Group, and Oakland-based Planting Justice.
Plans include a 5,000-square-foot leased commercial warehouse in Concord's Arnold Industrial area and a move, if approved by the city, to a permanent space at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in 2017. The permanent center would include conference and educational training rooms, shared work spaces and business support equipment aimed at creating what Singh calls "a food ecosystem."
Kish Rajan, director of the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development, said agricultural technology is a growth sector. In California, the drought and limited available land in urban areas is putting pressure on the industry to create drought-resistant crops that use limited water and energy to produce high yields.
"You can't overestimate California on that stage," Rajan said. "The economic opportunity for food innovation is growing broadly."