Project Pomona 'farm wall' installed at Citizen's Gym

Adam Moyers (left), co-owner of Citizen's Gym in downtown Paducah, explains the vertical farming system on the outside of his business to John Head, a U.S. Army recruiter. The system was paid for by Project Pomona, a local nonprofit looking to fight food insecurity.

ELLEN O'NAN | The Sun

A downtown fitness center and a local nonprofit are combining strengths to fight food insecurity in Paducah.

With the installation of an eight-tower, hydroponic vertical farming system on the exterior wall of Citizen's Gym, Project Pomona founder Bryant Hileman hopes to help feed Paducahans in need by providing free produce to anyone walking by on Third Street.

Hileman's group, which planted over 40 dwarf apples trees in late April to create an orchard on Paducah's Southside, collaborated with the gym's co-owners, Adam Moyers and Paducah Mayor Brandi Harless, Moyers's wife, to put the plan together. Funding for the system came from Project Pomona's fundraising efforts while the space and power will come from Citizen's Gym.

"I'm all on board with Project Pomona and have been since Bryant first talked to me about it," Moyers told the Sun on Tuesday. "(Installing this system) is an example of what could be done with all of the walls down here that are just doing nothing."

The group planted crops of collard greens, lettuce, mint and two types of basil, in addition to marigolds for aesthetics, last Wednesday.

"I'm just tickled that some of these sprouts that were so pitiful at first have taken on a life of their own," Hileman said. "The first month or two will be trial and error, just like when anybody starts growing things, but to have this much success already is a very good feeling."

Hileman hopes the wall not only provides a service, but also raises awareness of Project Pomona's target issue.

"Half of the battle is just getting people to know," he said. "When you're at home in your neighborhood, you don't really know how many hungry people there are."

The number of food insecure people in McCracken County, according to Feeding Families USA, reached 10,200 in 2017 -- with 2,300 of that population being children.

"We don't have a crisis of production, we have a crisis of power," Hileman explained. "If it was a crisis of production where we couldn't create enough food to feed people, that would be a problem, but we live in an agricultural state and we have 2,300 children in our county without a steady supply of food. That's a moral crisis."

Both Hileman and Moyers are hopeful this endeavor will spur other downtown property holders to join their cause.

"This one example isn't going to do anything as far as food insecurity, but this one example could inspire the next person," Moyers said. "If one grows into 100 and 100 grows into a 1,000, then we'd be producing a lot of food."

Moyers and Hileman eventually plan to add a second eight-tower system and a mural incorporating both to the Third Street installation.

"We want to try and inspire all of these buildings downtown to come together, help fight food insecurity," Hileman said. "With a small investment, we'd be able to fill the walls down here with free food and flowers.

"It's going to take time -- a season or two of doing this -- but once we're good at it, one of these towers can produce five heads of lettuce every three weeks," he continued. "So you can imagine, if you had eight towers doing that, that's 160 servings every three weeks."

Hileman intends to operate the wall between five and seven months of the year, shutting it down and draining the reservoir when the temperature is regularly below freezing.

A secondary effort, Hileman hopes, is a generation of freight farms -- indoor vertical farming systems housed in shipping containers -- that could be used to exponentially increase production and enable the project to raise further funds through the commercial sale of produce.

"It's going to take a whole lot of freight farms and farm walls to fix food insecurity, but you've got to start somewhere," Moyers said. "You can't just ignore it. Project Pomona was the first step and this is another little baby step in the right direction."

To learn more about Project Pomona or donate, visit the nonprofit's GoFundMe page.

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