Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Limited access to healthy food continues to affect urban communities across the U.S., including the City of Henderson, Nevada, where I am privileged to serve as mayor.

Nearly all of the food consumed by the 2.1 million residents and 42 million annual visitors to the Las Vegas Valley, where Henderson is located, comes from somewhere else. This is a necessity given the environment of our drought-burdened Mojave Desert home, which makes growing fruits and vegetables for residents and visitors challenging.

In addition, many economically challenged areas across the nation, including our own, lack access to supermarkets with affordable fresh vegetables, fruits and other nourishing foods, so residents rely on neighborhood corner stores and fast-food chains that offer few fresh food options. As a result, despite being a vibrant community with a robust economy, safe neighborhoods and high student achievement, Henderson is not immune to the development of food deserts or food insecurity.

But hope is on the horizon. Among the strategies we are implementing to increase access to healthy food in economically challenged neighborhoods is the incorporation of urban vertical farming. This is an innovative process that sustainably produces exponentially greater numbers of crops while using significantly fewer land and water resources, making it a viable option for our desert home.

Even under normal conditions, our hot and arid climate — which averages less than 4 inches of rain a year — make it very challenging to grow produce. But through hydroponic watering and microclimate controls for crop cultivation, vertical farming can use up to 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods. This is a critically important benefit for a region that finds itself in the 18th year of a serious drought, with no relief in sight.

Vertical farming is an emerging industry, and the private sector is eager to encourage its development as evidenced by an increasing number of vertical farms being built across the country. And just recently, Oasis Biotech opened its doors in Las Vegas, joining Urban Seed Inc., which opened in 2016.

Oasis Biotech, located near Henderson, is producing 9,500 servings of green salads per day from its 200,000 square-foot facility that houses the equivalent of a 34-acre traditional farm. The healthy food produced there supports local resorts, casinos and a national supermarket chain. Before this development, all local produce was usually supplied by distant farms in California and Arizona. In addition to added cost, produce shipped to Southern Nevada often loses vital nutrients and freshness during transport.

Being able to access locally produced and vertically farmed leafy greens and fruits for their restaurant salads allow these resorts to decrease reliance on produce shipped by truck or train. This change helps reduce air pollution and cuts carbon emissions while also promoting increased water conservation and sustainable farming techniques.

In addition, vertical farms like Oasis Biotech and Urban Seed Inc., will be able to tailor their produce to the specific need of its resort and supermarket partners and go from farm to table in 24 hours, which will create more nutritious, better tasting and diverse options for their clientele.

Henderson is taking a multifaceted approach to resolving issues that contribute to the lack of fresh produce experienced by our residents — an issue that can often lead to major health concerns including diabetes, hypertension and low student performance.

We recognized the importance of working with community stakeholders to effectively meet the challenge of providing all residents with access to healthy food. We incorporated this goal into the City’s “Henderson Strong” comprehensive plan and made this healthy food strategy a key component of the revitalization plan for Pittman, one of the City’s oldest underserved neighborhoods.

Part of this approach also includes working to attract new supermarkets and expanding existing stores. We’re also supporting school and community gardens and mobile farmers markets. The City Council also will consider an urban agriculture ordinance to support and facilitate larger scale and more sustainable food production — like vertical farming — in our city.

We have an exciting opportunity that will allow us to address the challenge of food deserts and food insecurity in our urban centers with vertical farming that takes place 365 days a year and produces food closer to where it’s consumed. But we must keep in mind that continued growth of this industry will not be possible without the assistance of public and private funding to support the infrastructure needed to develop it.

While there is no quick and easy panacea for the lack of healthy food options that residents across the nation face on a daily basis, forward-thinking municipalities like Henderson are actively implementing community-supported programs and exploring new technologies like vertical farming that will provide our most vulnerable families with healthier options.

Henderson Mayor Debra March, a former councilwoman, was elected to Nevada’s second largest city in 2017. Please follow @debra_march and @cityofhenderson.

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