Investing in Tomorrow’s Food Chain: Walter Robb Moves Forward

Investing in Tomorrow’s Food Chain: Walter Robb Moves Forward

Former Whole Foods Market co-CEO Walter Robb acknowledges that during his 26 years with the company the grocery giant helped usher in a new way of thinking about food — from farming to grocery shopping. Today, as an investor and advisor to food system startups, Robb is poised to influence the conversation again.

Walter Robb is the first to admit that it was not pre-ordained that he would become one of the modern era’s gurus of good food. After graduating from Stanford, he planned to become a lawyer, but he only lasted a week at law school. Next he tried being a teacher, a soccer coach and a farmer. None was the right fit.

In 1978, he borrowed $10,000 to open a natural-food store in an old garage in Northern California. He later sold his second store in 1991 to Whole Foods Market. By 2010, Robb was co-CEO with John Mackey, the visionary founder of Whole Foods. Sam Kass, the former White House chef and policy director for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, says Robb has done as much to change the food system as anyone in America.

With Amazon’s 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods, Robb, 64, is starting a new chapter. Through his firm, Stonewall Robb, he’s an investor and an advisor to innovative food startups. It’s a natural next step for him — after all, he got a $10 million payout when he left Whole Foods. But his acolytes will not find Robb a typical investor. He is thoughtful, rather than brash and obsessed with disruption. And unlike many technology investors, he is not searching for silver bullets. After 40 years in food, he understands the complexity of the food chain and knows that culture and conversation will be as powerful as technology in creating a more just food system. Robb talked to Food+City contributor Jane Black about what he looks for in a startup, the importance of creating a company culture, his hopes for the Amazon-Whole Foods deal and the future of grocery stores. Excerpts, condensed and edited for clarity, follow:

Jane Black: If you Google Walter Robb, the one thing you’re definitely going to learn is that your favorite food is lentils. Lentils?! Have you always been a healthy eater?

Walter Robb: No, I wouldn’t say. I grew up in a typical upper middle-class family. We had piggies in a blanket and we had Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables — stuff like that. It wasn’t really until I got to college that I opened my eyes to some of the healthier foods and started making my own bread and that kind of thing.

Black: College isn’t usually where kids start to eat healthy.

Robb: Well, in my sophomore year I started really reading [about food]. I read Wendell Berry’s book, “Culture and Agriculture, the Unsettling of America.” And that was pretty exciting for me. And I read Frances May Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet.” Frances was speaking in San Francisco at Food First on Mission Street, so I went to hear a couple of her lectures.

Then I also met Alan Chadwick (a pioneer of organic gardening in California). And I spent time apprenticing with him. Between all those things, my interests in healthy eating, the soil and healthy living overall sharpened up. It kind of started me down the path.

Culture is the sum total of the humanity of the company. It’s where the culture and values come alive with a presence. It’s: How does it feel around here? How do the customers feel? How do the team members feel? That’s what culture really is. It’s an alive thing.

Black: Jumping ahead, you joined Whole Foods in 1991 and rose through the ranks. In 2004, you were named co-president. In 2010, you were promoted to co-CEO. What do you think was your biggest contribution?

Robb: It’s always tricky to say stuff about yourself. But look, I think I was part of the core team that really helped Whole Foods change the conversation about food in America. So, I’m very proud of that. I think I’m a good retailer — at the craft of retailing. I love it. My number-one quote over the years was this: “We’re not so much retailers with a mission, as missionaries with retail.”

I think I’ve definitely helped to shape the retail and culture of Whole Foods, which, as you know, is one of innovation and experience.

Black: Which leads perfectly to my next question. As the food world shifts to be much more technology focused — Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods is just one indication of the trend — how does the culture you created survive?

Robb: Well, I think you start by realizing that culture is a living, breathing thing. Culture is the sum total of the humanity of the company. It’s where the culture and values come alive with a presence. It’s: How does it feel around here? How do the customers feel? How do the team members feel? That’s what culture really is. It’s an alive thing. It continues to evolve in a way that’s malleable, and, at the same time, that it’s anchored in the values.

So now the great question is: Will two wonderful companies [with their own strong cultures] have the courage, the wisdom and the humility to learn from one another, to learn from one another’s cultures?

At Whole Foods, we acquired 19 companies under my tenure as co-CEO. It takes about two years for two companies to really come together. So the answer to your question is, it’ll happen over time. But it will require efforts on both sides to really be thoughtful about how it’s happening.

Black: What are the big issues you see coming up in food?

Robb: There’s a new set of issues up on the table. Like food waste, like imperfect produce, like farm worker health, like full transparency on product. This new generation is going to look for a more, if you will, whole foods system. In other words, one that is more fully transparent, more responsible, [with] more options.

One startup in which former Whole Foods Market co-CEO Walter Robb has invested is HeatGenie. Its innovative self-heating container safely warms the package’s liquid contents — coffee or soup — within a couple of minutes, right in a consumer’s hand.

Black: What are you working on to address these new issues?

Robb: I’ve picked some companies to invest in and serve as a director. Food Maven [a Colorado startup that sells excess food acquired from producers and distributors to restaurants and institutions at a discount] came through Grant Lundberg, the CEO of Lundberg Family Farms. He reached out to me and asked me to talk to his cousin Patrick Bultema, who’s the CEO in Colorado Springs. And I guess it was just meant to be.

I’ve been troubled as a grocer for a long time about the food that gets thrown away. About 40 percent of food grown is wasted. It’s produced, there’s too much supply and about one third of what goes to landfills is food. It’s time for that to be met with some sort of thoughtful solution. I realized, “Wow, this is something we haven’t really worked on.” Here’s an area [in which] we can make a real change. I was drawn to that. I like working on things that matter. I like working on things that have a purpose, and [working with Food Maven has been] a great opportunity to work with people I enjoyed and to try to work on something that I know needs to be done. So that was an easy one.

Heat Genie came through Danielle Pruitt, my other half. She knew Mark Turner, the CEO. It is a technology that allows a can to self-heat in about a minute and a half. Think about it. Not only do you create new products for customers [such as self-heating coffee, soup etc.], but … think about disaster situations where hot food is needed.

I liked it for that reason. I thought the company had a missionary aspect. It’s a leading-edge technology for something that hasn’t been done before, but with applications where it could make a real difference in people’s lives. Black: So it’s the fact that all of these companies has a mission that drew you to them? Robb: The criteria are a great young entrepreneur or CEO, a sense of mission or purpose in the company’s work and a commitment to building a culture that’s good for the people at the company. They need to understand and appreciate those things.

I think I look for something that’s a forward movement into the future, right? So we’re creating something that doesn’t yet exist and that is going to help shape the world. Not just something that’s been around forever that’s just kind of trodding along, but something that’s going to open new opportunities and new growth.

Black: What parts of the supply chain do you feel really need the most attention in food?

Robb: I think number one is transparency. Number two, I’d say, is quality. I’d say quality and standards so that the transparency leads us somewhere, that it’s not just an obfuscation exercise.

[Adaptation] to the digital world is also important so that it’s easy for customers to access that information and to inform their choices, and this will also help companies to evolve faster. The last big thing is the food waste.

Black: OK. The questions everyone wants answered: What is going to happen with the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods? What can Amazon do, given their position, to take good food to the next level?

Robb: Well, I’d love to see them continue to reach the full potential of Whole Foods. Whole Foods was built to endure, to be around for hundreds of years. Built to make a permanent shift in the food landscape. I’d love to see Amazon continue to honor that and accelerate it into the future. That may be self-serving because I was there so many years and it’s so much a part of me, but I’d love to see that happen.

The second thing would be to propel a more nuanced conversation about food. This often is a conversation about “Is it cheap enough?” But the reason food is not “cheap enough” is there are so many tradeoffs in the production of the food that folks don’t always know what they’re getting.

So how do we more, I don’t know, more articulately, more intelligently, more holistically approach this question about cost and quality? In the end, there always is a set of choices for people. How do we make organic food, more natural food, less expensive, but not so cheap that it loses the reason for being? How do we make people more aware of the costs that in cheap food are really not being reflected, and the costs that are happening as a result of having it? So how do we raise the quality of the conversation about that?

Telegraphing the High Price of Cheap Food

Walter Robb argues that consumers need help to make more responsible choices about what they eat. But how?

One idea: True Cost Accounting, an emerging method that tries to pin precise dollar figures on the social, environmental and public-health consequences of food production. It’s a way to price a steak to include the costs of raising and slaughtering the animal as well as, say, the cleanup costs of associated water pollution.

How to account for these “externalities” is tricky. In 2016, some 600 economists, farmers, policy makers and advocates gathered in San Francisco to discuss new ways to categorize, quantify and monetize the food system’s externalities – and, equally important, how to message it to consumers. “We need to provide the context behind stories without overwhelming our audiences with complexity,” said the Consumers Union’s Urvashi Rangan. “You give the bad news, but you also have to give people a message that empowers them and puts them in the driver’s seat.”

Black: What about all the drones and robots we hear about? Will there even be grocery stores?

Robb: Absolutely, because the need and desire for human connection is ever-present. What’s exciting about robotics is that they are already being used extensively in distribution and in physical stores as a partner to team members, doing things like checking store conditions and out-of-stocks. In Wake Fern, a grocery chain out of the southeast, you’ll see robots going up and down the aisles doing their work, increasing the productivity of the human workers. It’s already part of the grocery store. But there’s a tendency to overstate the high-tech narrative right now — that everything will be replaced.

Black: What will grocery stores of the future look like?

Robb: The world is tilting toward fresh and artisan and the true craft of food production. Soon, we’ll see [stores] in different forms and sizes. I think the big stores are in trouble; people don’t want to shop at them anymore. The whole way people get food is changing. We have so many options for food, whether it’s a meal kit, pickup or eating out. You don’t have to go to the store all the time. The grocery store is just one option. There will always be a market, but even more, it has to serve as the town square.

More broadly, the grocery store of the future will have no boundaries to it. Even though it’s a physical store, it will reach all the way into your home and even walk around with you. Imagine a Whole Foods refrigerator. You set it up on an app, pull it up on your phone, order what you want and have it there when you get home. There are also virtual reality technologies, like one from a company called Spacee, that allow you to project images of the store onto, say, a wall and enable delivery from that image.

Black: So much of this is about convenience and more personalized food. What needs to be done to create a better food system?

Robb: We need a true north. I believe in the quality of food and the transparency and the access of good-quality food, and an inclusive food system for workers and eaters. I don’t know if everyone would agree with that.

Customers are pushing hard for transparency and more information, more choices. But there are different sets of customers who can afford different things, and they are supported by commodity suppliers. These two [food systems are] running in parallel. They have different value systems.

History suggests from our experience at Whole Foods that change is possible. There are setbacks, of course. The current White House shelved a rule around animal welfare for organic that was in the works for three years. It’s two steps forward, one step back.

But directionally we aren’t going to go back. It’s a combination of things, over time, that will lead to change. But if there’s one thing we need to keep working on, it is these gaps of access and availability. We produce enough food, but it’s not finding its way to the people who need it. I would hope that the north star is an ever-increasing availability and accessibility of food that nurtures and sustains our bodies and our communities and our country. That’s what I’m going to keep working on.

Watch Walter Robb discuss business culture, a leader’s vision and how to find your passion in a Duke University video.

Startup Spotlight: 2017 Prize Finalists Keep Sparking Change

Startup Spotlight: 2017 Prize Finalists Keep Sparking Change

Whether they were newly hatched companies or enterprises needing a little help getting to the next level, competitors in the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize are still going strong. We checked in with several finalists to hear about their progress.

Evaptainers logo

Refrigeration is an invention of the supply chain. You can’t safely transport perishable food without it (unless you employ centuries-old preservation tactics like salt curing or pickling). But in the 100 years since refrigeration technology was invented, it hasn’t changed much, and it almost always requires electricity to work.

In many developing countries, electricity is not assured, and many people suffer from food insecurity because they can’t save or preserve enough food. Nearly half of the produce grown in Africa goes to waste before it reaches the consumer. Evaptainers, a Boston- and Morocco-based startup, has reimagined refrigeration technology and is bringing it to those who need it most.

Evaptainers’ refrigeration systems don’t run on electricity. Instead, they use sunlight and water. A collapsible box, small enough to sit on a countertop, cools food the same way humans cool themselves — through evapotranspiration. In other words, when water evaporates, cooling occurs.

This simple yet revolutionary technology has been garnering lots of attention and gaining traction. Following the capital infusion that came with winning the gold prize at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, the company went on to win more awards: One award at the pitch competition Foodbytes! in San Francisco and a United Nations innovation award at the Seeds and Chips global summit in Milan. They have also been featured in Ag Funder News, The Boston Business Journal and TechCrunch. Their acceleration continues, with support from LAUNCH Food and funding from USAID, and they are finalizing the production of 400 prototypes slated for a field trial in Morocco this summer. A commercial launch is likely in 2018.

In addition to vital funding, a key result from their experience at Food+City’s Challenge Prize has been relationships with other startups.

“We met startups working on different aspects of food and food waste and have learned so much from our conversations with them about the arduous yet fruitful process of growing a small social impact business,” says chief strategy officer Serena Hollmeyer Taylor. Starting a company is often a struggle, as Prize competitors know. The opportunity to interact with others going through similar challenges, who can share knowledge and lessons learned, is a powerful outcome of Prize.

Evaptainers‘ electricity-free refrigeration device, made especially for use in developing countries where the electricity grid is unreliable. Using evapotranspiration, the box keeps produce and other products cool and prevents spoilage.

Nüwiel logo

The Last Mile is a supply chain concept ripe for innovation. It is often the most expensive and complicated leg of the supply chain journey for food products. Narrow roads, city traffic and generally limited space contribute to the challenge of this final stage in the supply chain. Large, cumbersome trucks have traditionally been the go-to mule — and scapegoat — for these deliveries.

Nüwiel, a startup in Hamburg, Germany, has taken on that challenge. The company created electric-powered bicycle trailers specifically for last-mile delivery in urban settings. Their technology knows exactly when to accelerate, decelerate and brake to make last-mile delivery via bicycle more efficient and realistic. In addition to improving delivery efficiency and reducing road traffic, the bike trailers don’t contribute to the pesky urban problems of noise and air pollution.

After winning the bronze prize at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, Nüwiel used the attention to accelerate their development.

“The Prize has certainly helped us a lot. We received significant media attention, getting mentioned not only in Germany but also in the U.S., U.K., Austria and Italy,” says co-founder Natalia Tomiyama.

In the months since Prize, Nüwiel has been accepted to a second stage at the biggest trans-European accelerator, Climate KIC; they’ve scheduled pilot projects with four different partners; attended South By Southwest; updated the design of the trailer; built a prototype; and were selected as to pitch and exhibit at the CUBE Tech Fair in Berlin. Last summer, they got out of the building to bike across Europe — from Hamburg to Italy, passing through the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain — and test the durability of their trailer.

Nüwiel’s powered trailer for making urban food deliveries; hooked up behind a bike.

Phenix logo

The issue of food waste is under attack on multiple fronts. Entrepreneurs are coming up with new ways to use food waste, while public awareness campaigns aim to induce behavior change. Some progressive governments have even joined the battle. In France and Italy, laws ban food waste and remove barriers to food donation. This means that French supermarkets can’t throw out unsold produce. While well intentioned, the law leaves French groceries in a bind, with hundreds or thousands of pounds of food that can neither be sold nor thrown away.

Enter Phenix, a 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize finalist, which is addressing that logistical issue in their home country of France. Phenix’s digital platform connects grocery stores with nonprofit organizations whose mission is to feed the underprivileged and food insecure. They organize pick-ups and drop-offs and connect surplus supply with demand in real time, employing their fleet of vehicles to transport the food. Phenix is saving 20 tons of food before it hits landfills, while supplying their charity partners with 27,000 meals — every day.

Since Prize, Phenix was a finalist for the French American Entrepreneurship Award (FAEA). At its headquarters in Europe the company has continued to expand into new regions in France and by finding new segments of the market.

Phenix’s mission goes beyond food waste, which is why they have created a lab to incubate new projects around the circular economy, a system that challenges the more linear system of make-use-dispose by inventing ways of maximizing the value of a resource and regenerating it into another purpose when it reaches its functional end. So instead of trashing unused food, for instance, a circular economy maximizes value buy feeding it to people in need or, when that’s not possible, transform it into a different usable product such as nutrient-rich compost. A planned grocery store with shelves full of strictly unsold products will serve as an example of of this model.

Despite similarities in the ways France and the U.S. treat tax deductions for donations, operating in the U.S. can be difficult because of regulation around food expiration dates. “France has a very detailed and clear framework on what expiration dates mean and what can be donated,” says Sarah Lenoble, director of Phenix USA. “Whereas it is much less clear in the U.S., where there is no real regulation on expiration dates, and every state can have its own regulation.” Phenix is searching for the right partner to launch a pilot program in the U.S.

Phenix workers and partners pick up and recycle or reuse uneaten foods in France.

A worker from Phenix organizes supplies for reuse.

Rise Products logo

There’s a movement brewing that includes turning surplus bread into beer, aquafaba — aka chickpea cooking liquid — into vegan mayonnaise and food waste into new packaging and products. With all the attention food waste is getting, it makes sense that “upcycling,” the process of using a discarded material and creating a valuable product with it, is quickly gaining traction in the marketplace.

Rise Products takes unspent barley from microbreweries in Brooklyn and uses a proprietary process to turn it into flour, which can be used to make the same products as traditional wheat flour. And they’re working with well-known Brooklyn bakery Runner and Stone to develop recipes for all kinds of carby treats. The flavor of the flour Rise produces varies based on what type of beer was produced from the grain — flour from ales tastes nutty and light, while porters create a dark and rich flour that smells like chocolate.

By participating in events like the Zero Waste Food conference and the Make It in Brooklyn Pitch Contest, in which it was selected as a top-five finalist, Rise has firmly entrenched itself in the upcyling-to-beat-food-waste movement.

Since winning a silver award at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, Rise has continued to gain momentum. They completed their time at the Food-X accelerator, gaining valuable mentorship and connections, and came away with a prototype for a production facility. From their spot in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of the 1776 Accelerator, Rise is working with the New York Economic Development Board to develop their own production plant.

Making the most of the Prize experience, they have stayed in touch with other startups from the competition, as well as their mentor, Ashley Shaffer of IDEO.

“Participating was an awesome experience for us, especially since we met our mentor, Ashley. We’ve kept in touch with her and with the other participants since then, even meeting some of them recently in Milan during the Seeds & Chips conference,” says COO Ashwin Goutham Gopi.

Bags of ready-to-use Rise Flour, made from spent brewery grains.

Smallhold logo

Some say the future of agriculture is in cities. As the world’s urban population continues to expand, it is easy to imagine how growing food in nontraditional areas, like skyscrapers and downtown warehouses, will benefit the food system. But while vertical farms, urban and rooftop gardens, and shipping container farms are all making progress in the area of urban farming, none has a foothold quite yet.

Distributed farming is the latest idea in this sector. The process enables a business or restaurant to re-route the last food mile and finish growing a product in the location where it will be consumed.

Brooklyn-based Smallhold is leading the charge for distributed farming. At the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, co-founders Andrew Carter and Adam Demartino pitched the idea of distributed farming through restaurant mini-farms that produce mushrooms. Today they’re cultivating several unusual varieties of mushrooms, from lion’s mane to yellow and pink oyster, and they plan to expand into other products like leafy greens soon. Top chefs and restaurants in New York are taking notice and endorsing the products.

Since Prize, three new restaurants have come become clients, welcoming Smallhold farms into their kitchens. Smallhold also sells their products directly to grocery stores and intends to use connections from Prize to pursue expansion in major retail stores.

“Food+City introduced us to some amazing stakeholders and thought leaders from places like Whole Food and Walmart, and we are extremely happy we attended,” Carter says. The company is gaining momentum in the tech circles as well. The team benefited from the mentorship and guidance of the TechStars Boston program, which wrapped up in May 2017. They have also seen their team grow 100 percent since Prize and have expanded their farm with a custom-built shipping container to grow more mushrooms.

Mushrooms grown by Smallhold.


Innovation in food takes all forms, from making improvements to pallets to creating new avenues for delivering food or designing packaging that increases the shelf life of a food. Since 2015, we’ve hosted a challenge prize for startups in the food space that are challenging our notions of how the supply chain works. The 2018 Challenge Prize will be awarded on March 13, 2018. Be sure to visit to watch this year’s entrants become finalists and compete at SXSW Interactive 2018.

Your Food: Up for Grabs?

Your Food: Up for Grabs?

Don’t panic, but your food is about to appear on your plate in surprising and unexpected ways.

More than ever, food delivery is becoming faster, fresher and more personal. Our food supply chain looks transitory as it shifts to accommodate changes in where our food comes from and where it’s going. The traditional food movers — large logistics, distribution and transportation companies — are now in the company of small, scrappy, food delivery services.

These changes are the result of the aggregation of big data and consumers who are willing to forego the shopping experience for the shipping experience. Both the data and the consumers who create that data have come together to transform our food supply chain. For the better, we think. Just about everything is up for grabs. Farmers look more like engineers, food is fresher and those who deliver our food are coming from unexpected directions.

This issue, our third, takes a close look at some of the shifts from imagination to reality. Food waste is a top concern now as consumers are either being shamed by the amount of food left on their plates or rallied to find new ways to use food waste. If we accept the fact that we can’t eliminate the waste in our supply chain, we can turn our attention to ways we can put it to use, either as a source of energy or repurposed as new food or non-food products. Ari LeVaux takes us to the land of biodigesters and ugly fruit jam. Jen Wong offers surprising ways in which food waste reappears in new shapes and forms, such as coconut shell tiles.

When two Norwegian shipping firms, Yarrao and Kongsberg Gruppe, announced their electric, driverless ships, the prospect of a global food supply chain that doesn’t require bunker fuel (the lowest grade of fossil fuel) suggests we may soon see more sustainable ways to ship food around the world. Providing context for this new model for shipping food is our story about canals and barges, the original slow movers of food along inland waterways. David Leftwich shares his story of barges that travel up and down the Mississippi in this moment of battery-powered cargo. And Jeannette Vaught’s history of cattle logistics reminds us that the tracks of our food have been visible on our landscape for centuries.

The Norwegian vessels also promise robot loading and unloading of cargo, one of the many human displacements occurring within our food supply chain. Rachel Wharton’s story about robots and Melanie Haupt’s images of vending machines that serve us our food suggest that the experience of eating may lose its deeply human connection.

To give us some perspective of how we got here, Laurie Zapalac explains how a mundane container of food was invented because of a challenge prize offered by Napoleon in the late 19th century. Cans today are smarter, carrying much more than food. They carry the history of their contents, and some contain sensors for tracking and tracing a can throughout the supply chain. Zapalac sheds light on how we’re getting a better view of a more transparent food supply chain.

Jane Black’s story about urban agriculture tells us more about the complexities and questions that accompany this new way to feed cities. And if you thought urban agriculture was the way to create Smart Cities, read Gergely Baics’ story about a 19th-century smart city. Cory Leahy’s deconstruction of wartime cookbooks on ration use brings new meaning to ways we might attack the food waste problem.

We do our part to help change how we feed our cities through our annual Food+City Challenge Prize. Each year we see more and more startups that are finding ways to improve food logistics. See our description of what these startups are doing to get food faster and fresher to our cities. And finally, check out our recommendations for cool books and nerdy websites.

Urban Agriculture: Can it Feed Our Cities?

Urban Agriculture: Can it Feed Our Cities?

From rooftop gardens and indoor vertical farms to community plots and edible landscapes, urban agriculture is on the rise. As more of the world’s population resides in cities, city farming is touted as a sustainable solution. But are there enough rooftops to make it work?

New Jersey has been known since the late 19th century as the Garden State. But today its 12th largest city, Camden, is anything but lush and green. It is the country’s poorest city — an astonishing 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — and one of the country’s most dangerous. A recent Rolling Stone profile of the city began: “The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked.”

And yet.

A small food economy is blossoming in Camden. AeroFarms, an indoor agriculture firm, plans to break ground as early as this year on a 78,000-square-foot vertical farm that would grow 12 stories of red-leaf lettuce, kale, bok choy and more.

Meanwhile, more than 100 of the city’s thousands of vacant lots have been transformed into community gardens. In 2009, at the dawn of enthusiasm for urban farming and during the last available year data were collected, gardeners at 44 sites harvested almost 31,000 pounds of vegetables. Had it not been an unusually wet and cold summer, it might have been more.

It’s all very inspiring: Whizz-bang technology that offers healthier food and much-needed jobs. Communities taking charge of their food destiny in a place that the almighty market has neglected. (Camden, population 77,000, has just one supermarket within its city limits.) But it’s not only struggling cities that see the promise of urban farming.

Urban agriculture — which by definition includes indoor farms, rooftop and backyard gardens, community plots and edible landscapes — is often hailed as a solution to daunting global challenges. It addresses climate change by allowing food to be grown close to home, rather than hauled thousands of miles. It could affect obesity and chronic disease by making healthy options more available. And urban farming could help feed a quickly growing world population, because many of the predicted 9 billion people on the planet (by 2050) are increasingly headed to cities.


But can urban farming sustainably feed cities? A close look under the agri-hood suggests that it’s a lot more complicated than advertised.

For starters, let’s examine the history. The Industrial Revolution quickly and dramatically severed ties between consumers and the farmers who grew their food. Efficient train networks transported food more rapidly, from farther away, and more people moved away from rural areas to cities for work in factories. Since then, there have been regular waves of enthusiasm for urban gardening in the West, motivated by social reformers, who made a moral connection between the land and healthy living, or by the innate human desire for self-sufficiency.

To wit: One of the Salvation Army’s first initiatives in late 19th-century London was “farm colonies” designed to help city folks feed themselves. Beginning in the 20th century, Israel’s early Zionists created thousands of small urban farms. But the only examples of urban farming feeding substantial numbers of people occur when there is little other choice.

In Israel, urban farms soon gave way to rural kibbutzim (collectives based around agriculture). The United States saw Americans plant more than 5 million household plots during World War I and 20 million in World War II. Those 1940s victory gardens produced 9 million pounds of produce each year — what amounted to 44 percent of the U.S. harvest. (Read more about how people cope with food shortages during wartime in our story about rations.) But when the war ended, citizens largely abandoned their gardens and returned to the convenience of shopping at the supermarket.

World War II: Glass balls for forcing early cabbages are placed in position at a Salvation Army farming colony in Hadleigh, Essex, 1940. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)


Proponents of urban farming say this time could be different. Besides the global challenges of climate change and population, there is wide consumer demand for locally grown food. Moreover, technology that makes urban farming more productive and more sustainable could tip the balance. The technologies include lightweight beds that can be stacked, efficient LED lights and hydroponics and aeroponics, by which plants grow without soil and fed a calculated diet of nutrients by water circulating beneath them.

“By some estimates, we will need 50 percent more food by 2050,” says David Rosenberg, CEO of AeroFarms. “We need transformational changes. Vertical farming does more with less.”

A decade ago, not even one of these so-called vertical farms existed. Today, there are dozens of them — one in Singapore, one in a former bomb shelter in London and one in Japan, built by researchers to provide safe food after the devastating Fukushima earthquake in 2011. That farm, formerly a semiconductor factory, now produces 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.

AeroFarms operates nine vertical farms. Its largest, in Newark, 90 miles northeast of Camden, produces 2 million pounds of leafy greens each year. The 70,000-square-foot complex is a poster child for futuristic farming. Inside, so-called grow tables are stacked 12 levels high and enveloped by a glow of pink LED light. (Plants, it turns out, require little from the yellow part of the light spectrum, which requires greater amounts of power to produce.)

Rosenberg sees AeroFarms less as an agricultural producer than as a data-science company, delving into the intersection of plant biology and engineering with the goal of controlling every aspect of growing and maximizing efficiency.

“We take data on plants and understand what makes them grow,” he explains. “You can’t do it this way in the field. There are too many unknowns.”

AeroFarms’ vertical gardens grow under energy-efficient LED lights and use up to 70 percent less water, compared with more traditional soil-based or horizontal farming. Its largest facility, in Newark, New Jersey, produces 2 million pounds of leafy greens each year, which don’t have to travel far to reach urban markets. Despite these efficiencies, critics of vertical farming say using electricity rather than renewable sunlight doesn’t add up for high-volume production. Photo courtesy Aerofarms.


The biggest boon of vertical growing may be water conservation. Drive through California’s Salinas Valley, where the vast majority of America’s salad greens are grown, and you’ll see hundreds of sprinklers shooting great arcs of water across the fields. Some of that is used by the plants, but much is lost to evaporation and runoff.

In contrast, hydroponic and aeroponic systems give the plants only the water they need, and it is recirculated through the system. On average, indoor farms and greenhouses use at least 70 percent less water than traditionally farmed lettuce in California.

There are other benefits, too. The produce doesn’t have to travel — unlike the lettuces that journey as far as 2,800 miles if they are shipped from coast to coast. This all but eliminates the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with transport, though those are only a fraction of the total associated with producing food. (Read more about greenhouse gases tied to food waste in our feature on page 18.) And because they are fresher, the greens last longer in consumers’ refrigerators, which means less lettuce thrown away because it’s gone bad before it could be eaten.

No wonder vertical farms are catnip to technology investors looking for the next big disruptor. According to AgFunder, in 2016 funders poured $126 million into indoor agriculture- related startups (including things like lighting and software). But critics say that the environmental benefits of indoor farms don’t add up.

For one, to grow even a fraction of the fruits and vegetables needed to feed cities would take vast amounts of space. According to one analysis, it would require a 150-foot-by-150-foot, 37-story building to provide the vegetables for a city of just 15,000. This would cost $250 million to build and $7 million in electricity to run annually.

Indoor farms also fail to take advantage of a free and renewable source of energy: the sun. “If you’re not taking advantage of the sunlight, then the process will inherently involve excess energy consumption and carbon emissions,” says Stan Cox, a researcher at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas.

Substituting electricity for sunlight is costly. Using current technology, the equation just about works out for leafy greens, which are 90 to 95 percent water and don’t require as much light to grow. But do the math on denser fruits and vegetables or other crops — carrots, potatoes or wheat — and the amount of power required to grow them soars. According to Cox, it takes about 1,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity for each kilogram of edible matter (excluding the water stored inside). Or to put it another way: You need the same amount of electricity to grow one kilogram of tomatoes as you do to run your home refrigerator for an entire year.

“The claim of indoor farming is that we can spare the land by getting rid of industrial farming,” Cox says. “But of course, this vision uses more industrial inputs than anything done on the landscape.”

AeroFarms’ Rosenberg counters that lighting technology is getting ever more efficient. And though he concedes that indoor farming may look industrial, it addresses major challenges including the depletion of arable land, water pollution and conservation: “We don’t use soil. We don’t use pesticides. We use a fraction of the water that field farms do. We have a much softer footprint.”

In sunlit greenhouses on the outskirts of urban areas where land is more plentiful, BrightFarms raises greens and tomatoes using hydroponics — a system in which plants grow directly atop pools of fortified water. These and other crops like strawberries, cucumbers and peppers benefit from growing near where they’ll be consumed, a selling point for cities that have an urban-adjacent BrightFarms facility nearby. But hydroponic agriculture isn’t the right fit for all crops; apples, for instance, store well and travel more easily than delicate tomatoes, making traditional orchards a better option, for now. Photo by Chelsea Clough.


An even softer footprint comes from other types of commercial urban and peri-urban farms that use greenhouses. Take BrightFarms, which operates three commercial greenhouses and sells directly to grocery stores in seven states and the District of Columbia.

BrightFarms uses hydroponics, which means that trays of greens grow atop vast ponds. But rather than place its farms in cities, where land is generally more limited (and much more expensive), it locates its greenhouses just outside of urban areas. With more space, it is not necessary to stack plants to turn a profit. The use of hydroponics also means that the farms can be, well, horizontal — and take advantage of (free) sunlight.

Today, the crops that make commercial sense for hydroponic farming are greens and tomatoes, says BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot. Both crops travel long distances, unless you live on the West Coast. Both too are highly perishable and sell for a premium price. And, as anyone who has eaten a winter tomato knows, these crops benefit from being grown closer to home.

One day, Lightfoot hopes that BrightFarms will expand to other crops that meet the same criteria: strawberries, peppers and cucumbers. But there are limits to what he can produce. BrightFarms, he says, will never be able to compete on a crop like apples, which grow in many geographic areas, store well and travels easily. They will always be cheaper and more sustainably grown in the field.

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A method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Nutrients may be delivered a variety of ways, including fish waste, duck manure or a fertilizer containing key macronutrients.

In a hydroponic set-up, plants get the nutrients they need through irrigation water. The process eliminates soil and increases yield. For this process to be successful, ventilation and temperature modulation are key. Solar panels provide renewable energy to power irrigation pumps and ventilation systems, and rainwater is captured in roof tanks for use as irrigation in dry periods. Water is constantly recirculated in a hydroponic system, wasting none. Illustration by Ellaphant in the Room.


Commercial farms, of course, do not have to produce everything. Could community, rooftop and backyard gardens make up the difference? According to a 2016 report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, the answer is no. While a significant proportion of fresh produce needs could theoretically be met in some places, it would only work in those locations if urban farms are widely implemented and focus on intensive forms of production such as rooftop gardens.

To feed Cleveland, for example, 80 percent of every vacant lot (of which there are many), 62 percent of industrial and commercial rooftops, and 9 percent of every occupied residential lot would have to be put into food production. Those are daunting numbers before you even consider practical constraints such as property values, infrastructure limitations and zoning regulations.

Urban agriculture’s limits do not make it a failure. Community, rooftop and backyard gardens make significant impacts in the lives of the people who tend them, and give poor communities like Camden access to fresh, free food.

Dominic Vitiello, a professor of city planning and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied urban farming in cities including Camden, concludes that in the United States, perhaps urban farming’s greatest potential is to effect “inside-out” community revitalization. Urban farming offers opportunities for social enterprise and supplemental income for low-income families. It also helps to build and sustain vital social networks that go unmeasured by traditional economic-development research.

In other words, urban farming may not feed a city like Camden. But its gardens can help rejuvenate the city and make it a worthy representative of the Garden State.

Really, Really Smart Cities

Really, Really Smart Cities

At Food+City, we think a lot about the relationship between food and our cities. Now, through the artistry of Josh Cochran, we can look at how food might fit into future urban landscapes and what urban designers now call Smart Cities. We contacted three really, really smart people for their visions of what our food-wise city might look like in the future.


The president of the Appalachian Mountain Club brought his view of how plants, agriculture and the natural environment could mingle in a city. He envisioned new uses for telephone pole infrastructure as aeroponic poles, vertical gardens to be found every few feet. And he sees car-oriented technology reapplied to food, including parking lot–based planters powered by hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that plug in during working hours; and a just-in-time composting “uber” with sensors that indicate when the bin is full and trigger a self-driving composting barge to come pick it up.


As director of the GustoLab Food Studies Program in Rome, Massari sees an end to restaurants as we know them but no lack of socializing over food. People will prepare food and eat on the go in their driverless cars; and solar-powered food trucks will grow their own ingredients in mobile gardens. City squares and green spaces — some on rooftops — will become open-air gyms and community gardens. And neighborhoods will be equipped with digital vending machines that sell fruit, vegetables, milk and other fresh products. In Massari’s future, every flower bed and traffic barrier will become agricultural land. Through an app, all citizens will be able to water plants and take care of these areas. Urban gardens and agricultural areas will be monitored using Information Communication Technologies (ICT) and digital devices. And perhaps most notably, food waste will disappear: All leftover food from supermarkets, kitchens, industries or urban agriculture will be gathered by food collection apps (which will direct food to people who need it) or it will be sold in supermarkets featuring soon-to-expire foods sold at a discount.


An urban planner who works with cities as centers of innovation and food distribution, Zapalac sees kitchens as hubs of information that feed individual food supply chains. The details of our kitchen inventories will be available on our smart devices, so we avoid buying duplicate bottles of mustard — but also so that grocery delivery services can be truly automated. Along the way, recycling and compostable waste collection will be complementary services to grocery delivery: Containers will be reused rather than recycled (think the return of the milkman), and our food scraps will become the compost feeding the produce that will eventually become our next great meal. Thinking more broadly, in neighborhoods once recognized as food deserts, an expanding network of community foodscapes will combine concepts from the edible education movement with innovative forms of job training — building capacity by strengthening the soil and enhancing the beauty of once depleted communities. These places will also function as stages and urban “dining rooms,” providing venues where local culture and local identity can be shared and celebrated.