Tackling Food Insecurity for a More Sustainable, Resilient Food System

Q&A with Amy Samples, Director of Community Outreach and Ramel Bradley, Director of Outreach

More than 1 in 10 Americans is food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means that about 10% of Americans have experienced periods of uncertainty about whether they’ll have enough food for themselves or members of their families, due to lack of money or other resources. On top of that, another 10% of Americans struggle with low or very low food security, which means that their eating patterns were disrupted, or their food intake was reduced at times because of insufficient resources. 

As a sustainable food production company, AppHarvest’s mission seeks to address food insecurity head-on. To discuss the current food scarcity epidemic, we sat down with Amy Samples, our Director of Community Outreach, and Ramel Bradley, our Community Director, to gain their insight on the impact of food insecurity in our country and hope for the future.  

AH Staff: The United Nations reports we’ll need about 70% more food by 2050 to feed the growing global population. How is the AppHarvest indoor farm model primed to address this problem? 

Ramel: Our model tackles this challenge in multiple ways. Probably my favorite is the fact that we use 90% less water than traditional ag. We have a 10-acre retention pond that collects all rainwater from our 60-acre roof. It’s recycled, double-filtered, then goes directly back into our plants. I really appreciate the sustainability aspect of that which, really, is in everything we do. 

Amy: I have a background in natural resources and agree; the sustainability storyline at AppHarvest matters a lot. We’re also well-positioned to get to 70% of the U.S. population in a day’s drive. That helps with getting food where it needs to be quickly, which includes areas that are food deserts, which are a big contributing factor to food insecurity. And we’re doing it at scale: the way we’re farming produces 30 times more yield than traditional, outdoor agriculture. By building large, we’re able to maximize output and get food where it needs to be. 

AH Staff: The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 14% of Appalachians are food insecure compared to 12.5% of the general U.S. population. What AppHarvest community initiatives are you most proud of – and hopeful for – in terms of addressing regional food insecurity? 

Amy: It’s a big issue for this region. It’s a problem across the nation, but particularly here in Kentucky. A program that Ramel and I are both very proud of, along with our colleagues on the Community Team, is the educational container farm program. The program gives high school students in Eastern Kentucky an introduction to AgTech and hydroponic growing while working in a living-learning laboratory on their school’s campus. They’re growing their own food with new technology, and doing it at a very high yield rate, which is essentially a microcosm of what we do in our large controlled environment agriculture facilities. 

This allows students to learn how to do something they already know how to do, but in a new way, creating a sense of innovation that is key to the culture of Appalachia. By placing these hydroponic classrooms across the region, we’re empowering Appalachian students to grow their food and distribute it to their communities. This happens a couple ways: students either put it into the cafeteria, or they donate it to a local food pantry. So, our participating student farmers are learning while also creating edible food product that benefits their friends, family and community. 

There are a couple other programs Ramel can speak to, too. 

Ramel: I love that. I love the container program, Amy. I’m also very proud of our programs engaging grade-school students. We have a partnership with Save the Children, through which we’ve provided 1,600 fourth-grade students with hydroponic, at-home growing methods. These students have been able to grow their own food at home in the middle of the pandemic, and then turn their work into a family lunch or dinner with recipes provided in the kit. It’s fun to do this great, much-needed work. 

AH Staff: Food deserts are a major issue in both rural and urban areas. Could you talk about how you’ve seen food insecurity affect your community in Kentucky as well as New York? 

Ramel: Yes, I could. I’m originally from Brooklyn, but now Kentucky is my home away from home now. When it comes to Kentucky, I think the statistics alone speak for themselves. Our beautiful Bluegrass state, unfortunately, ranks last out of the 50 states when it comes to fruit and vegetable consumption, 46th when it comes to overall health outcomes, and 45th in obesity and other overall health risk factors.  

You’ll see major differences between Kentucky and New York City if you’re looking – the mountains and rolling hills of Appalachia versus the skyscrapers and bright lights of the city, for example – but the underlying problems of food insecurity exist in the same ways. In New York, I see diabetes and obesity directly affecting my family members. In both regions, this is a very unfortunate, silent crisis that needs to be addressed. 

AH Staff: What role do you see controlled environment agriculture playing in addressing Appalachian food deserts? How about urban food deserts? 

Ramel: I see it playing a tremendous role. We’re already seeing the benefits of our efforts in Appalachia. As mentioned, we have high school students learning about AgTech, we have college students learning about AgTech, we have grade-school students learning about AgTech. I think a lot of it starts with education. 

Personally, I’m most hopeful for the differences we can make in urban areas. When you look at these underappreciated communities – in Appalachia, in New York City, across the country – you will see the advantage or benefit of including underrepresented groups. African Americans make up just 1% of all agricultural workers. I see so much potential to provide black farmers with more opportunities in AgTech, which is one of the fastest growing industries. 

AH Staff: While 2050 may seem like a lifetime away, this generation and the next will grapple with agricultural crisis, which will likely lead to greater rates of food insecurity. How can education be part of the solution to this problem?  

Amy: I’d like to build on what Ramel was talking about with engagement. Allowing people the opportunity to feel engaged with an issue is step one. Step two is information-sharing. This generation will be faced with solving a crisis that’s plaguing our global food system. That’s why it’s so important we seize the moment and find a way to give ourselves and our kids the tools to tackle this pressing issue at scale. We don’t want our students to say, “this is too big, I’m going to step away;” we want to hear “this is big – and here’s how I’m going to contribute.” That’s why AppHarvest, alongside our community partners, has developed a robust agricultural education program to empower young futurists and farmers. 

Research shows that if you can reach a child and inspire their worldview, you’ll change not only the trajectory of that child’s future, but also their family dynamic. These students go home and talk to their parents, their uncles, their sisters, their cousins. They tell them about what they’re doing at school and how they’re growing their food. This has the capacity to send ripples through an entire community for generations, which we’re very excited about. 

AH Staff: AppHarvest Founder & CEO Jonathan Webb has said that AppHarvest is not a silver bullet. What other solutions, particularly community-led, do you envision as important or even crucial to addressing global food shortages? 

Amy: Jonathan Webb is never one to dream small. He encourages the rest of us to dream big, too. We accomplish that by standing shoulder to shoulder with our community partners, including schools, non-profits, government agencies and elected officials. We’re all working together to decide what the future of America will look like, and the only way we’ll get there is through thinking big and working in lockstep with one another. 

AH Staff: How would you encourage the average American to get involved in the process of sustainable food production? 

Ramel: Well, here’s a great way to start: grow your own food. I would encourage so many folks right now to start their own family garden. Or you know, go out and volunteer with a community program and grow food there. It’s the easiest way, and also the best way, to be self-sufficient and provide food for yourself, your family, your friends and your community.  

Amy: You’ve done such great work getting food into communities you care about, Ramel. I’ve seen that magic, and I know it makes a difference. So, absolutely agree on that. 

Also, folks shouldn’t underestimate their buying power. Investing in brands and companies that operate sustainably will send a vital message to the agriculture industry that there’s a market and demand for this. That includes going to your local grocery store and requesting sustainably-grown foods. You, as a consumer, can move the mark on what your local food vendor puts on the shelves. So, use your voice and let them know what you’re looking for as a consumer. 

Always engage in conversation, too. AppHarvest has a great social scene. Follow us, follow other great brands, and let us know that what we’re doing matters to you. 

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