Social Innovation Lab Startup Brings Produce and Progress to Baltimore Neighborhoods

Social Innovation Lab Startup Brings Produce and Progress to Baltimore Neighborhoods

Urban Pastoral founder J.J. Reidy harvests produce from the company’s first urban garden.

Baltimore startup Urban Pastoral has plans to rejuvenate the city’s neighborhoods through healthy food, city farming, job creation, community connections and the establishment of a robust local economy.

The startup’s first social solution, BoxUP, turns shipping containers parked in vacant spaces into urban oases filled—floor to lid—with growing salad greens and herbs tended by employees from the community.

“All I need is space, water and electricity connections,” says J.J. Reidy, who founded Urban Pastoral in 2014.

An avid entrepreneur, Reidy hopes Urban Pastoral will provide access to fresh produce in urban neighborhoods while also serving as a vehicle for creating jobs—including for formerly incarcerated individuals—in areas of high unemployment.

Reidy and his Urban Pastoral teammates participated in The Johns Hopkins University’s Social Innovation Lab 2014–2015 cohort as M.B.A. students at the university’s Carey Business School. The lab is an early-stage incubator for innovative nonprofits and mission-driven companies whose technologies address pressing social issues, like food deserts and access to medical care.

“The most beneficial aspect of the lab was that it provided exposure to the social entrepreneurial ecosystem, especially in Baltimore,” Reidy says. “We had access to incredible mentors and many opportunities to share our ventures with community leaders,” which—in Urban Pastoral’s case—led to receiving seed funding from the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation.

Reidy has formed partnerships with local organizations like Humanim, a social enterprise that creates jobs for people facing difficulty securing employment; City Seeds, which will open a kitchen space for local food entrepreneurs at the planned Food Hub in East Baltimore; and Bon Appetit Management Company, which provides food services to The Johns Hopkins University.

Last October, Urban Pastoral launched its first BoxUP at Humanim’s East Baltimore headquarters. Thanks to the vertical arrangement of its plants, the 320-square-foot container is producing more than 100 pounds of hydroponically grown produce—raised in water, not soil—a month using only 10 gallons of recycled water and 80 kilowatt hours of electricity—for energy-efficient LED lights—a day.

This controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) approach makes the growing facility up to 20 times more productive and 80 percent more water-efficient than a conventional farming plot of the same area.

“We shine in the winter,” Reidy adds, because BoxUP’s controlled environment ensures a year-round growing season. Urban Pastoral sold its first produce in December.

Reidy is also working on opening a food stall and market later this year in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore. It will sell BoxUP produce, vegetarian dishes made from the produce by a local chef and Urban Pastoral’s own line of goods, including pesto and hummus made with BoxUP herbs.

The market will help “challenge Baltimore’s perception of farming and of what it means to eat farm-to-fork,” Reidy says. That doesn’t have to involve a farm miles away from the city—the farm can be in the same city block in which its produce is sold or eaten.

Additionally, Reidy plans to introduce FarmUP—a commercial-scale, CEA greenhouse that will produce 30,000 to 60,000 pounds of produce a month and create up to 50 jobs at one facility, he says.

The first FarmUP is slated to open in 2018 on property surrounding the new Green Street Academy, a West Baltimore charter school for students in grades five through 12. The location will enable students from the school to enjoy fresh vegetables year-round and to see, firsthand, how a for-profit business operates and can improve the local community.

An agricultural and technology innovation center attached to this FarmUP will facilitate applied learning opportunities for the students, who, after graduation, will be equipped to apply for jobs and internships with Urban Pastoral. FarmUP will reserve 1 percent of profits to create an impact fund for investing in education, community initiatives, free meals or even a foundation serving local communities.

In five years, Reidy plans to create 100 jobs and harvest more than 1 million pounds of produce from all Urban Pastoral operations by forming integrated food hubs in strategic locations across Baltimore—near schools or hospitals, or as amenities for apartment buildings, for example—and staffed by Baltimore residents, who might start as produce harvesters and deliverers and move up to become managers.

Last fall, Reidy shared his vision for empowering communities through local food production at Expo Milano 2015, an international exposition in Milan with a “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” theme. At the expo, Urban Pastoral was one of 10 startups from around the world chosen to participate in Feeding the Accelerator, the USA Pavilion’s business innovation program.

“Improving food security isn’t just about bringing grocery stores to food deserts,” Reidy explains. “It’s about bringing jobs and income to the community; educating community members about fresh, healthy food; and empowering them to improve their lives and communities.”


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March 2016