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US (CT): UConn alum fighting food insecurity in Hartford, one micro-farm at a time

It took only three weeks to build the 455 Garden Street farm.

Recycled wooden pallets purchased cheaply from a West Hartford paint company and rolls of chicken wire quickly transformed into a fence.

White PVC pipes settled into racks, trash cans housing circulation systems were buried partway into the ground, and a solar-powered shed was dropped on-site to run the off-grid electric pumps that circulate about 100 gallons of water through each of the hydroponic systems.

Seedlings were planted into the pipes – collard greens, brassicas, and different lettuces, all more tolerant varieties better suited to growing outdoors in a New England autumn where temperatures can dramatically shift from 80-degree afternoons to 40-degree-or-less mornings.

The entire system was placed on a small lot next to a brick apartment building – a space offered up by the property owner, who originally wanted to build a community garden in the overgrown space in Hartford's North End.

"The owner of the site just didn't have the bandwidth and resources to set it up," says Christian Heiden '20 (CAHNR), who notes that a traditional garden can be much more complicated to construct than his lightweight, portable, and efficient hydroponic farm system. "He had it sitting here, unused, no active development plans on it. We had actually set up systems at his church, so he said, 'You guys can use it if you want to set up on it.'"

The "you guys" are Heiden and his team at Levo International, a nonprofit startup he founded when he was 16 years old. Through community engagement and partnerships with local governments and organizations, Levo works within neighborhoods around Connecticut and in different parts of the world to help address food insecurity in creative and environmentally sustainable ways.

Though they have ongoing projects in Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, lately, they've been giving a lot more attention to Connecticut's capital city – particularly Hartford's notorious "food desert," where the community has tried unsuccessfully for decades to lure a grocery store into the city and where fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate food can be expensive if residents are even able to find it at a bodega or corner store.

"We have the Little Free Pantry over at the corner of Garden and Mather, and we've had that since 2021," says North End resident Joanna Iovino, who works as a project manager for North End Little Pantries, a Levo partner. "We noticed the most popular items are the vegetables. When we put vegetables in there, they go like crazy because it's hard to get the fresh vegetables."

Heiden and Levo hope to help change that, one location at a time, starting with neighborhoods like Garden Street.

On an overcast day in mid-October, a gathering of nonprofit partners and local officials came together at the new hydroponic micro-farm at 455 Garden Street to celebrate its construction and opening and also to talk about broader plans for the area.

"Our big initiative is in the North End, which is full of vacant, underutilized, and blighted properties," says Heiden. "We can grow on brownfields. We can grow on vacant land that is contaminated because it's all above ground. No major remediation required."

Each Levo system can operate outdoors in Connecticut from about April to November and can sustain upwards of 40 plants at any given time using about 90% less water and significantly less space than traditional agriculture. The system's production capacity depends on what they choose to grow.

"If we took and filled it with tomatoes, you're looking at hundreds of pounds of produce," Heiden explains. "But if you assume a four-week cycle with about half a pound of plant, you're looking at 20 pounds every couple weeks out of these systems."

Which is 20 pounds per system that can be distributed through the Little Pantries and through other community partners and CSAs and also sold to area residents at farmer's markets planned for some of the sites.

"Garden Street is really the center point that we see as an opportunity," says Heiden, but he's quick to add that the site is not a community garden. "This is a farm. Our goal is to actually bring people in from the community and pay them to manage these properties and these farms, so creating employment opportunities as well as creating a food source."

The site is also not the end of Levo's investment in the North End. In late October, they held a ribbon cutting at the Urban Hope Refuge Church, where a piece of barren 30-square-foot land was transformed into the Secret Roots Neighborhood Farm, just up the road from 455 Garden Street, that the church will manage and maintain.

A third hydroponic site in the neighborhood, conceived and backed by North End Little Pantries, was funded in 2022 through Hartford Decides, the city's participatory budgeting initiative – the project is awaiting land-use approvals and is planned for construction at the corner of Garden and Mather Streets.

"We have a vision of building the garden there, having people pick their own produce and then also putting it in the Little Free Pantries," says Iovino. "The other thing we want to do in that space is also have local farmers come in, and bring their produce, and do a free farmers market where we could issue vouchers to the community and have them purchase food from the farmers, but not only that, have them meet the farmers and get to speak with the farmers and correspond with them."

It's grassroots community building, literally growing in barren lots, and their neighbors' embrace of the efforts is one of the best parts for Heiden and his team.

"They're constantly interacting," he says. "They're our security. There's always somebody watching the garden. We had a resident who stopped a couple of kids from jumping over the fence. So, they're invested.

"Not only is it just a nicer thing for them to look at, but I've also had at least four or five people who have come up and asked what we're doing. Explained the program, and they asked to be involved. For us, this is an awesome way to really build community and interact with the community because this is just something that's very real to the residents of the community."

"There's a lot of food in this neighborhood, but there's not a lot of food that looks like this," said Arunan Arulampalam, CEO of the Hartford Land Bank, at the Garden Street event, gesturing toward the pipes of vegetables growing on the site. "And so, for all of the children – and I can tell you, there are many children growing up on this street – who are going to have access to different food options growing up, for all of the neighbors who are going to be able to think about what they cook that night and what kind of food they incorporate into their meals… it has such a huge impact on the health outcomes of people who live in this neighborhood, and on what is possible in neighborhoods like this."

Heiden, who is from Bloomfield, began building hydroponic systems as a teenager while working on his Eagle Scout project – first building a hydroponic greenhouse for his high school and later traveling with his family to build a hydroponic greenhouse for a community in Haiti.

He founded Levo International in his first year at UConn. As an undergraduate in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Heiden studied applied and resource economics and international development, which helped to prepare him for the work he does now. He also took part in an array of entrepreneurial development and support opportunities offered by the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

He still maintains a working relationship with CAHNR, conducting plant evaluation and disease testing and running experiments in the floriculture greenhouses on campus in Storrs.

Today, Levo provides turnkey solutions for any organization at any level, Heiden says, and they're hoping to expand and replicate their work on Garden Street all around the city of Hartford and into other urban areas in Connecticut as well.

"We can scale it up and down – if you've got $100 or $100,000, we can match accordingly," he says. "What we tell people is to reach out to us. We'll figure out a solution that fits you, whether you're Joanna and you need us to help find funding for your grassroots organization, or you've got a budget and you want to do stuff.

"The implications of this are just huge. Not only is it a way to solve food deserts in urban centers with blighted and vacant properties, but it's also a way for us to connect communities… this is an opportunity for us to not only end food insecurity in Hartford but also to connect communities that have systemically been disconnected, which I think is one of the really valuable things that we provide."


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