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June 14, 2024 11:39 pm

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Winston-Salem spent $2.5m on a controversial hydroponic farm to feed the hungry. It’s failed.

Credit: iStock

by Ella Klein, NC Newsline
May 28, 2024

This story is part of a series on food insecurity and possible solutions in Forsyth County, reported, written and photographed by Wake Forest University journalism students. The series was part of a semester-long class was taught by Newsline Environmental Investigative Reporter and Assistant Editor Lisa Sorg. The is the final story in the series.

The future of a city-funded hydroponic farm in Winston-Salem is still unclear after being delayed by five years and exceeding its original budget by 100%.

Housed inside a greenhouse, the hydroponic farm is in Kimberley Park, in the historically Black Boston Thurmond neighborhood. It is managed by a local anti-hunger nonprofit known as H.O.P.E. (Help Our People Eat) of Winston-Salem.

The farm has long been under scrutiny since the City Council approved the project in 2016, at the urging of Mayor Pro Tempore and Councilwoman DD Adams. 

A native of Winston-Salem, Adams represents the Ninth Ward, which includes Boston Thurmond.

“I had been reading about hydroponics growing for years,” Adams said, in explaining her support for the project. “I thought that if I could do a hydroponics farm as a prototype launch, and it works, then maybe we could do miniature hydroponic farms all over the city, but more predominantly in African American, Brown and poor communities.”

Hydroponic farming is a controversial form of agriculture. There are high start-up costs, and artificial nutrients are pumped into the water that feeds the plants. As a result, many farmers still opt to grow crops in soil.

From the outset, the farm has encountered difficulties. It was scheduled to open in 2018, but did not officially start until 2022. The mission has also changed: from selling microgreens to upscale restaurants to feeding people who are food-insecure.

The city originally partnered with the nonprofit Goler Community Development Company to complete the project. The initial construction budget was just under $1 million but escalated to $2.1 million, after costs to operate and build a hydroponic farm were found exceed original city estimates.

After the project went above budget and delayed its opening, residents and opposing council members criticized the city for its allocation of funding.

Council member Robert Clark was the only ‘no’ vote on the 7-1 decision to grant H.O.P.E the contract to manage the greenhouse and has been one of the loudest critics of the plan since its inception. He did not respond to requests for comment. 

As reported by WFDD, during a city council meeting, neighborhood resident Eunice Campbell expressed skepticism about project.

“From the word ‘Go,’ on this project, my personal opinion was, ‘I understand what is trying to happen, but the plan is flawed.’” Campbell said.

At the time, the city realized the hydroponic farm needed further management.

“We sought to contract it out, which is eventually how H.O.P.E won the contract,” said Moriah Gendy, food resilience program director for the Winston-Salem Office of Sustainability. 

In March 2023, the city awarded H.O.P.E $538,000 over two years to operate the hydroponic farm and use it to provide vegetables for their operations.

That has also entailed a change in mission.

“Initially, [the city was] going to sell microgreens to restaurants, with big markup and those things,” said Scott Best, H.O.P.E.’s executive director. “We’re a nonprofit that’s all about getting nutritious food to people that need it. So right now we’re simply distributing this food.”

The hydroponic farm grows lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. However, that’s a sliver of the fresh fruit and vegetables that H.O.P.E distributes. “We end up purchasing a considerable amount of produce to keep up with the demand that we’re seeing,” Best said.

H.O.P.E works with other community gardens and farms, while also buying produce from wholesalers, to obtain the amount of food required for its mission. The organization supplies children with 2,500 pounds of food, including some fresh produce on the weekends when school lunches aren’t available, Best said. H.O.P.E. also delivers to several locations within the food deserts in Winston-Salem. After the hydroponic farm went over its construction budget and its opening delayed, the City of Winston-Salem awarded a two-year contract to the nonprofit group H.O.P.E. to operate the farm and a nearby greenhouse. (Photo: Shaila Prasad)

However, the farm is still hampered by the constraints of hydroponics and high operating costs.

Hydroponic operations not only use a lot of water, but also electricity to power artificial lighting, pumps, heating and cooling. “We’d love to get solar panels,” Best said, “because we are using a good amount of power.”

The farm and an associated greenhouse also consume about 3,000 square feet of the former open area at Kimberley Park. “Our building took away green space, the greenhouse took away green space. So we are very, very determined to make good on that change and that investment,” Best said.

The H.O.P.E contract expires next spring. It’s unclear what will happen. 

“[The city is] looking to see updates on how the program is going and make a determination about the future of the program, once reviewing the successes and opportunities that have come from the two years of H.O.P.E. operating it,” Gendy said. “ Whatever the future of this program will be once that two-year contract is completed, will again be a decision made by the city of Winston-Salem City Council.”

Despite the hydroponic farm’s shortcomings, Councilwoman Adams still supports the idea.

“I realized that everyone wasn’t as fortunate as me and my family. My family, we had gardens in our backyard all my life,” Adams stated. “I’ve never been hungry. If I was hungry in my life, even when I went away to college to Baltimore, it was because I wanted to be hungry,”

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This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.