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USDA grant to allow Manitowoc nonprofit grow up to 200 pounds of produce with more hydroponic Flex Farms

Posted at 8:49 PM, Oct 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-27 21:49:58-04

MANITOWOC, Wis. (NBC 26) — The building used to be a church in downtown Manitowoc.

But now, down in the basement, you'll see an indoor lettuce farm. Amber Daugs got the idea after she went to a food pantry when she was homeless more than 20 years ago.

"We weren't able to have a hot plate, a microwave or a refrigerator of course," she said. "So having something that was quick and nutritious was really what I was looking for."

So in 2014, she founded Grow It Forward in Manitowoc County.

"Not only is Grow It Forward working towards addressing food insecurity, but also nutrition insecurity here throughout our county," Daugs said.

The nonprofit recently received a grant from the USDA to expand its hydroponic farm, more than doubling it. Each one of these units is called a Flex Farm.

"We are the largest nonprofit Flex Farm in the nation," Daugs said.

She says the expansion will help grow a total of 160 to 200 pounds of produce every week.

"We also offer our produce to people in need here in our community," Daugs said. "Currently, we have about 1,300 individuals registered to utilize our food pantry."

Urban farm manager Nina Loomis grows four types of lettuce and plans to bring herbs into the fold.

"It will pump water up the vertical drip line and down through some drip lines at the top," she said. "Soil gardening can be very labor intensive and this is just so incredible how easy it is to use."

Grow It Forward also hosts a winter farmer's market and sells the produce to restaurants and gas stations.

"For accessibility to your community, it's all year that you get this fresh produce," Loomis said.

For Daugs, that's one of the goals.

"My brothers and sisters in our community, we hope to help take care of them by investing in more local food access," she said.

The nonprofit is one of two agencies in Wisconsin to receive the reward. Grow It Forward will receive funding for three years through the USDA.

The Flex Farms are produced by a Green Bay company called Fork Farms. Loomis says there's been some success in growing other items like tomatoes and cucumbers.

Daugs says food in the United States travels about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July of last year, almost eight percent of Manitowoc County lived in poverty.

Feeding America estimates the food insecurity rate among children in the county is over 15 percent.