Metro Caring invited supporters and volunteers to plant the first seeds as the hunger-fighting nonprofit launched a new project — a farm in a box.
A fairly big box. Actually, a 40-foot shipping container that has been converted into a compact hydroponic farm parked on the grounds of St. Joseph Hospital near Metro Caring’s City Park West headquarters.
At a ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday, Metro Caring CEO Teva Sienicki said the more than 50 garden plots her organization already sponsors enable Denverites to build both food security and networks that can help the city thrive.
“This is just what makes us so thrilled and delighted to grow our growing communities,” Sienicki said.
Metro Caring chief gardener Jess Harper then ushered people through the container, inviting them to plant lettuce seeds in capsules of moss that then would be suspended from growing towers. The high-tech container garden uses just 10 gallons of water — about 10 toilet flushes — a day. Thanks to a nutrient-feeding drip system, controlled climate and LED lights that provide a full, concentrated spectrum of the sun’s goodness, the farm is expected to produce year-round up to 600 plants a week. That 600 is about what would normally be produced from a two-acre plot.
“In Colorado our growing season is pretty short. We wouldn’t even be able to plant right now” outside, Harper said, adding the first crop of lettuce would be ready to harvest about two weeks sooner than if it had been planted outside in the spring.
In addition to donating parking spaces for the container to sit on, St. Joseph is paying its utility bills. The Morgridge Family Foundation donated the container. Denver Public Schools is connecting the project to Manuel High School students who will help with planting, tending, cleaning and record-keeping and along the way get an introduction to the world of work.
Volunteers and others already involved with Metro Caring gardens — some near the headquarters and underwritten by Saint Joseph, some at Saint John’s Cathedral — have plans for the new project. They include supplying local restaurants with freight farm-to-table greens and creating opportunities for training in hydroponic and entrepreneurial skills.
“We’ve got bucketfuls of ideas,” Harper said. “Lots of innovative, creative, just local stuff.”
Metro Caring is perhaps best known for its free fresh food market. The organization distributed more than 2 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2018, relying on donations from grocery stores, churches, backyard gardeners and more. Because Metro Caring believes hunger is about more than lack of food, its programs include job training and its navigators connect people to utility assistance and other support services.