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By Laura Stec

City Supper – The Future of Food

Uploaded: Oct 8, 2016

In prep for Bringing Urban Cuisine into Colleges and Universities, a talk I’m giving next year for NACUFS (National Association of College and University Food Services), The Food Party! has embarked on a 10-month research project to define “urban cuisine,” and share how it's happening around the country.

We’ve all been eating local lately, but how might that differ from eating urban? One main way is farmers tasked with growing food without much, or any, land. A recent road trip to Chicago offered a look at folks rising to this challenge.

Urban Cuisine Tour Stop #1
Uncommon Ground
Our tour starts at this Chicago restaurant still harvesting kale, carrots, herbs, lettuce and other produce from raised beds on their downtown rooftop. When I arrived last week, they just picked 400 pounds of produce. Not bad for an eastern town in October.

Urban Cuisine Tour Stop #2
Gotham Greens
Next a visit to Gotham Greens, the largest indoor greenhouse (LEED certified) in the U.S, growing hydroponically in water with added fertilizer, on top of the Method Soap building. Their football field-size greenhouse produces annually 100 acres of greens such as basil, Chicago Crisp and green oak leaf, which is handpicked, non GMO, and pesticide free.

Urban Cuisine Tour Stop #3
The Plant
The Plant turned an ol’ meat processing plant into sixteen different, independent food businesses that operate mimicking natures closed loop system, incorporating each other’s waste. Example: The coffee maker’s bean chaff is used as a substrate for the mushroom business. The brewery’s leftover grain is fed to aquaponic tilapia, and their waste helps grow greens. In the near future, an anerobic digester will convert all the food waste into energy and power the entire building.

- diagram of the closed loop system

- anerobic digester

Urban Cuisine Tour Stop #4
Windy City Harvest
This urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative (a project of the Botanic Garden) is helping to build Chicago’s urban food system. Their eight acres of urban farmland include the second largest roof garden in the U.S. - a half-acre atop McCormick Place. The garden grows “city crops” that can compete with traditional agriculture and make for a sustainable business model. So no hard to grow grains, or super easy and cheap zucchini and squash, but specialties like artisan greens and peppers, carrots, hops, beets, radishes, herbs, a tea garden, etc. The building’s original green roof has been adapted for crops with shallow roots, because weight limits prevent the addition of more soil. But it still yields 8,000 pounds of food, and 240 pounds of worm castings, annually.

Urban Cuisine Tour Stop #5
Metro Farms
Finally a stop at this a large-scale tilapia/greens greenhouse - 10,300 square feet that produce 500 pounds of food a week at peak. Owner Benjamin Kant believes, as I do, aquaponics is superior / more high-vibe than hydroponics because the incorporation of fish poop in the fertilization and growing process mimics soil. “I think growing is as much about biology as it is chemistry which is why aquaponic is superior to hydroponic,” says Kant. Think about it – how can we replace soil until we know what's in it? (for one thing, microbes).

- tilapia tanks

On a local note:
Santa Clara County has a budding urban ag scene. A movement to grow food in backyards and public spaces – and improve community health in the process – is being fueled in part by 2014’s Measure Q, a 15-year parcel tax that generates funding for land conservation projects. As reported by New American Media, the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority (SCVOSA), the independent special district responsible for implementing Measure Q, has devoted up to a quarter of funds for projects in urban areas, through an Urban Open Space grant program.

Also, last fall the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone (UAIZ), which gives landowners a tax break for committing land to food production. San Francisco and Sacramento have similar programs in place. In San Jose specifically, up to 600 sites may be eligible for the incentive, if adopted by the City Council, which votes on the ordinance next month. Learn more here.

And for more about the future of food...
Join us for reThink Food, —a joint initiative of The Culinary Institute of America and the MIT Media Lab—November 4–6 at the CIA at Greystone in the Napa Valley. This year’s program explores the tensions between old and new, novel and familiar, tradition and innovation, and delves into the intersection of food with some of technology’s most exciting advancements around AI, robotics, virtual reality, big data, and genetics. The three-day event features interactive sessions and food experiences. It’s a fantastic gathering of really interesting people and ideas, and some great tasting food too.

So here's a question for you. What's the hardest thing to tackle when starting an urban farm?