Hydroponic Highlight – Grow It Forward

If you are a regular follower of our blog, you know that we truly believe that hydroponic gardens are a wonderful idea for food banks. They produce a great deal of fresh, nutritious food efficiently, and affordably, throughout the year and in small spaces, which is ideal for a food bank. We are proud to partner with a number of food pantries and food banks across the country to bring more fresh food to all and are thrilled to share more about our partner, Grow It Forward, in Manitowoc, WI.

Grow It Forward is a 501c3 nonprofit, anti-hunger organization that was founded by Amber Daugs in 2014. The organization’s mission is to provide people in need with dignified access to good food, along with opportunities to grow, cook, share, and advocate for it. Simply put, Grow It Forward uses good food to build community and feed change in Manitowoc County. Grow It Forward operates like a comprehensive hunger relief organization. It offers food access programs providing a healthy source of food for people who need it; food skills programs to teach people about how to grow, cook, and choose healthy food for themselves and their families; and outreach and engagement programs helping people to get involved in becoming advocates for themselves and for their communities to end future hunger.

The food pantry at Grow It Forward is busier today than it has ever been. In the past year (June 2023 to June 2024), the food pantry has seen an influx of 44 percent more people in need of food. In May 2024 alone, Grow It Forward served 1,158 people in need. According to Amber, “Food insecurity isn't going away in my community; it is growing exponentially.”

Grow It Forward was founded on providing access to healthy food, and this premise comes from Amber’s own personal experience with food insecurity. She went to a food pantry for the first time 27 years ago and the only available fresh food was a swollen bag of lettuce, an orange that had mold on it, and an apple that was heavily bruised and covered in fruit flies.

After experiencing this, Amber set out to make a change in her community.

For years, Grow It Forward had an outdoor garden to grow fresh food, which was fruitful, but also came with its challenges. They struggled with getting enough consistent volunteers to physically help maintain the garden, the high costs of plowing and weeding the land, pests, inclement weather, and a short growing season. Then, in 2020 during the pandemic, Grow It Forward was able to order one Flex Farm, an indoor mobile hydroponic farm, from Fork Farms with the help of several individual sponsors and grants. That one farm was joined by 23 more Flex Farms in the following years, and then via the USDA’s Urban Agriculture and Innovation Production Grant, Grow It Forward was able to double their capacity to 48 farms in 2022.

Today, Grow It Forward has 56 Flex Farms growing in the basement of an old church in Manitowoc, WI. In 2019, St. John's United Church of Christ was donated to Grow It Forward to carry on the church’s mission and passion to build community. As the story goes, the women of the church were involved in food access work for the church dating back to the early 1920’s. The church was one block away from the Mirro Aluminum Company, a cookware company that made goods like pots, pans, and cookie cutters, and the women of the church provided meals to German immigrants who were working in the Miro factory. 

The church hosted chili suppers, chicken dinners, ice cream socials, and community picnics to provide meals for the immigrants and foster a sense of community. This legacy continues today with the 56 Flex Farms growing in 3,500 square feet in the basement of this former church to help feed those in need. The family of Flex Farms grows fresh lettuces, basil, herbs, sage, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, kale and more. And, the farms produce three tons of leafy greens every single year in the space directly under the church’s sanctuary. In addition, the church houses Grow It Forward’s food pantry, community center, and processing kitchen for their café.

Grow It Forward is more like a comprehensive hunger relief organization. Here are all the things the organization is working on to keep their doors open and feed more people:

-   They have a catering division where they use fresh greens and herbs grown in their Flex Farms in sandwiches, salads, and other dishes

-   In their café, Harmony Cafe & Juicery, they sell cold-pressed juices and salads to customers

-   They sell their fresh greens wholesale to a number of restaurants throughout Manitowoc County and at the local farmers' market

-   They donate greens to other local community meal programs

-   Grow It Forward provides greens through their food pantry, feeding fresh food to thousands of people in need.

Fun Fact –

One of Grow It Forward’s wholesale clients is the Lincoln Park Zoo in Manitowoc. The zoo purchases lettuce from Grow It Forward to feed their amphibians as they found that it is more cost-effective to get lettuce from Grow It Forward than a grocery store, and the greens are better quality and last longer. Lucky amphibians!

According to Amber, the power of community is what makes this program successful, and growing food via the Flex Farms is the single most impactful and engaging tool that Grow It Forward uses. The community volunteers are abundant, in fact, Grow It Forward often has to turn volunteers away from helping to maintain the Flex Farms since there is so much interest in doing so.

Every week they have people come in to help maintain the Flex Farms and learn about them - volunteer study groups, corporate groups, high school students who are logging service hours, adults with disabilities, retirees and more. The volunteers span the generations, and there are seniors working hand in hand with high school students, learning and growing together. Last year, more than 400 individual volunteers supported the Flex Farms (and they got to take fresh greens and herbs home with them as well).  

Another Fun Fact –

A young woman from the local middle school had volunteered to help out with the Flex Farms and was sent home with a bag of fresh lettuce to take home to her family at the end of the day. Apparently while waiting for her parents to pick her up, she ate the entire bag of lettuce in the parking lot. Case studies show that if people, especially children, are involved and engaged in growing food, they are significantly more willing to try new foods and consume more vegetables.

In the food pantry network, fresh vegetables and fruits are hard to come by, and much of the food is past its “best buy” date or peak, meaning its nutrition quality is often quite low. Things like cookies, crackers, and pizza are easy to come by, but fresh vegetables are not. Amber feels that being able to grow fresh foods easily, quickly and on-site has changed the way Grow It Forward has been able to support their local people in need. “I don’t have the budget to purchase the food, but I have the budget to grow the food, and specifically the healthy, fresh food. I am grateful for that.”

Amber shared, “I believe that all things are possible. You have to think abundantly, and you have to continue to have conversations with the right people who want to invest in and transform communities. The Flex Farm has changed the way we look at what fresh is and what we’re demanding to be dignified food for our community in need. For me, the more fresh food we have available the better.”

Please visit Grow It Forward online and follow them on Facebook for regular updates. Let’s all keep working on this Fresh Food Revolution.

Introducing the Flex Farm

Fork Farms offers the most efficient, scalable, and transformative indoor, vertical hydroponic technology on the planet.

How To Get Started?

Our most popular product, the Flex Farm is available for purchase directly from our website. 

  • The Flex Farm is $4,995 and can be used in spaces from classrooms, food pantries, lunchrooms, businesses, non-profits, homes, and beyond! 
  • Talk to a Team Member: If you are looking for more information, connect with one of our team members using the form and they will be in touch to talk all things Fork Farms.  
  • Buy Online: You can purchase a Flex Farm, which includes three months of growing supplies, curriculum, growing resources, community and more.