Indoor urban farming could help feed the homeless and alleviate our innate worries about scarcity in the land of plenty

By William Hicks

Urban indoor farms can grow food faster, in less space and without using pesticides Photo by Worldwatch Institute

Urban indoor farms can grow food faster, in less space and without using pesticides
Photo by Worldwatch Institute

Halloween and the harvest festival season got me thinking about both the sources of our food and our fears.

In the very distant past, our ancestors hunted and gathered whatever the Earth produced. This nomadic lifestyle gave way to farming, which paved the way for the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern cities.

As more people left their farms to work in factories — my own mother grew weary of farm life in Iowa and moved to Southern California — the production of our food became mechanized to the point that it is now controlled by a very small percentage of the population.

At first blush, corporate-owned factory farms seem like an efficient way to go. Look deeper and you’ll see serious consequences.

On the macro level, factory farming leads to over-utilization of soil, depleting it of vital nutrients. We’ve all heard the old adage “you are what you eat,” so why are we surprised that our bodies have become unhealthy and our brain chemistry is all out of whack?

Commercial crops are often sprayed with toxic chemicals to kill off pests, and the seeds are bio-engineered to produce greater yields. I doubt that we’re fully aware of the consequences of ingesting pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Considering the ever-growing popularity of organic produce and farmers markets on the Westside, my wife and I were shocked in 2012 when California voted down Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of products containing GMOs.

Should we all go back to farm life? As my mom would tell you, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Much to the chagrin of factory farms and corporate grocery stores, I think we should take a serious look at expanding indoor urban farming, which is also called vertical farming because the grow space expands upward rather than outward.

A former semiconductor factory in Japan is now the world’s largest indoor farm, producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day, according to a story at that boasts “indoor crops can be grown 2.5 times faster than outdoors, with just 1% of the water.”

There are urban farms in America, too, including one in a Chicago warehouse that’s gearing up toward yielding a million pounds of produce per year — all in just 90,000 square feet.

This brings me to one of the main sources of our fears — the fear of not having enough, of being cut off from food, water and shelter. In terms of shelter, our ancient ancestors only needed to find a cave or some animal skins; in modern cities the danger is homelessness due to a lack of money.

Homelessness can be a sensitive issue because it triggers this base fear in all of us. In the old days we demonized traveling gypsies and pagan witches who lived in the woods. Today we demonize the homeless.

The homeless have their virtues. Most don’t drive cars and therefore don’t contribute to air pollution and traffic, and they can remind us to at least think about the values of a simpler life — enjoying open space, fewer regimented responsibilities and more free time
to just be.

They also reveal the great flaw of cities, which is that they produce people with untreated mental illness and substance abuse and aren’t fertile enough to house even the military veterans who’ve been to hell and back fighting for our country.

Urban indoor farming is also a solution for these modern hunter-gatherers that society has reduced to scrounging for aluminum cans and pocket change.

Coupled with more public parks and fruit trees, indoor farms would provide a place for homeless people to eat, sleep and work to support themselves.

With L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti budgeting $100 million for the homeless in Los Angeles, I think that we should combine indoor farms with homeless shelters.  A sizeable indoor farm in L.A. could employ hundreds of workers while providing shelter and healthy organic food at the same time.

This is no pipe dream. In Atlanta, a homeless shelter began encouraging residents to grow their own healthy, organic food instead of waiting for donations that may not come.

“Now the shelter is home to a huge rooftop garden planted by the residents themselves, which is expected to yield hundreds of pounds of great quality greens,” according to a GOOD magazine article.

History once led farmers into cities. Now I believe it’s time to bring the farms into the cities.

William Hicks lives in Marina del Rey. He can be reached at