Diversity & Inclusion
Communities / Environment / Food and drink

Think and Grow Farms is using tech-enabled sustainability practices to fight food scarcity

Cultural economist Dr. Jamie Bracey-Green on how her new venture is helping West Philadelphians go from consumers to producers for a more equitable local economy.

Cultural economist Dr. Jamie Bracey-Green at Think and Grow Farms. (Photo by Bobbi Booker)

Urban neighborhoods frequently deal with issues in accessing quality food, and the pandemic has only further exacerbated that for many. Cultural economist Dr. Jamie Bracey-Green believes that creating sustainable solutions in the local economy starts with empowering people in underserved communities.

Accordingly, she launched Think and Grow Farms to address food scarcity in West Philadelphia. As Generocity’s Bobbi Booker described it last month, the farm is an artificial environment that’s akin to Mother Nature on steroids. Bracey-Green can reconfigure the plants into several full harvest cycles in a single year by raising plants indoors under high-tech lighting and irrigation systems. Throughout the process, her team is tweaking the hydroponics and aquaponics, creating a symbiotic environment for plants and fish. The project employs agricultural technology and growing techniques honed in the legal compliant cannabis business.

“We have an actual, literal farm inside a shipping container growing food to show our folk the technology,” Bracey-Green told Generocity. “And I think, again, the technology — the low-tech, high-tech part of it — is easily accessible to [Black] folks. Anybody can do this, and it’s an entrepreneurial opportunity.”

In a fireside chat withBooker during Generocity’s ADVANCE conference last week, Bracey-Green — who also founded the former Center for Inclusive Competitiveness within Temple University’s College of Engineering and is currently the CEO of the National Institute for Inclusive Competitiveness — discussed how tech and science can help communities thrive by allowing consumers to become producers, and how sustainability helps everyone. Some takeaways:

Repurposing technology is an effective way of meeting needs.

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, Bracey-Green said that while humans are “extraordinary consumers of tech,” technology alone is not a driver of innovation. The tech she uses at her farm is based on existing technologies that she repurposes to fit the needs of her community. The emerging hemp and cannabis industries are examples of this.

“Industrial hemp and cannabis are ‘kissing cousins,'” she said. “Hemp uses the water of cotton. I would just say you cannot grow tons of it in the city. [But] it would grow in rural areas and [be] process[ed] in cities. There’s an opportunity for us to use old-school ways to heal our planet and economy.”

Empower youth to find solutions.

Bracey-Green is inspired by the way she’s seen young people gravitate to new technology and how they use it to find solutions. A 10th grader who her organization works with designed an app to impress a girl he liked — and he later sold a thousand copies of the app at $1 per unit, she said.

“The young people and their energy, from what we’ve seen, is powerful in helping us getting to sustainability,” Bracey-Green said.

Black-owned businesses need support in becoming recession-proof.

During a year in which COVID-19 has amplified issues many communities already faced, Bracey-Green emphasized how much support Black businesses need in becoming more stable and less vulnerable to dramatic changes. Less than 3% of businesses (or 25%, when considering sole proprietorships) are Black-owned in a city with an almost 44% Black population.

“There are teams that are looking at how companies are misaligned but [they] are not looking at how to make companies recession-proof,” she said.

(Check out Technical.ly’s reporting series on Black and Latinx entrepreneurship in Philadelphia for more on this topic.)

Circular economies may hold the keys to the future.

Bracey-Green said technology gives communities an advantage in creating circular economies, which allow communities to reuse waste products and build sustainability. These economies would also see people who typically consume become producers.

“What that looks like in urban agriculture is, there’s a way to start pod farms in urban communities to address access to food,” she said. “We have extraordinary resources like the Thomas Jefferson [University] biomaterials lab. Whatever we do, we have to think in advance around sustainability and how tech supports that. How can we grow more food indoors year round? Is that going to be solar? You have to have a handle on tech to use data and apply data to new opportunities for economic growth.”

Economic strategies need to be inclusive in order to work.

By comparison, Bracey-Green believes that continuing to rely upon linear economies will doom society. Ensuring that solutions are inclusive of people from the communities they are designed to help is essential.

“You don’t get money for people’s poverty without including them in strategy,” she said.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Generocity / Temple University

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