Feeding the Need: San Clemente Urban Farms sources produce for local food banks
Greg Licht was gardening at home from raised beds until he discovered Tower Garden. All it took was one Tower Garden and Licht was hooked. He loved how easy it was to grow, and how successful he was with it. He started growing so much that he began to give produce away to friends and family. One Tower turned into two Towers, and pretty soon, Licht was managing 15 Towers in his backyard. He hit a point where he’d gone from recreational gardener to full-on farmer. He needed both more space and assistance to maintain his backyard garden, so he tapped into local junior college kids in the ag department to serve as interns to help manage his Towers for school credit.
Licht’s 15 Towers swelled to an impressive 40-Tower farm. Licht’s farm focuses on supplying local food banks and families with the highest quality food made from Tower Garden produce, helping to serve the community and those in need.
Q. What led you to start San Clemente Urban Farms?
Licht: I bought a Tower. I started growing and it was incredible. Then I got an extension kit, and another, and I got into it. Pretty soon, we were growing so much that we were giving it away to friends and family. During the holiday time, we were with a group of friends all trying to think of something to do besides writing a check to charity. And everyone decided that if we all pooled our money to buy another Tower, we could donate that food.
Q. How did you decide to start using your Tower Garden units to give back?
Licht: I got an idea to turn this into a nonprofit. That way, it’s more legitimate and will get people involved. My goal was to find a location that's marked conducive to growing and somewhere where people could come in, we could teach, etc.
Our current location is on a golf course [where] we have a greenhouse; we have a side area for our seedlings and a compost area. We teach people with compost what to throw in and what to toss out. We are really trying to educate. Our mission is to feed people in need, and educate people about growing their own food and living a healthy lifestyle. Our model is donation, but we do sell a little bit of produce to help pay bills.
Q. Are there any memories where you’ve delivered to a local food bank or family that has impacted you personally?
Licht: Our closest food bank is called FAM (Family Assistance Ministries). We started on that three years ago. For me, it was an emotional day when I took our first crop out to these guys and they were so grateful. When you’re a food bank, what you get donated is typically a box of macaroni and cheese and cans of beans — and bread that’s on its last day. You might get some frozen meat. You get tons of pastries. They were just so grateful to receive fresh produce. We asked them, “What do you want us to grow?” And they said [that] the clientele needs the basics. We chose lettuce - because everyone eats salad.
We grow lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. We’ve put some herbs in the Towers as well. Whenever I get a new volunteer, the first thing I do is make them drive down to FAM to donate the produce, and they always come back with tears in their eyes.
We donate to Laguna Food Pantry and they are super grateful. Then we added the Southern California Indian Center in Fountain Valley, which takes care of the urban Indian population in Orange, LA, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. We will donate more as we are able.
Q. Have you seen more people turning to food banks due to the economic hardship experienced this year?
Licht: The food banks have seen a 400% increase in people needing help. 92% are children. Let that sink in.
Q. How has your farm's food supply been impacted by COVID-19?
Licht: It did affect us because it shut the whole golf course down. We had no access for a while. Which is not good for the Towers. It was so hard. There was an electrical issue where we lost our whole crop. It made it really difficult. We just moved in and COVID-19 hit. We spent all this money setting up our greenhouse and wanted to start selling stuff. We wanted people to come buy seedlings to help pay the bills.
Q. As far as the future goes, what do you hope for your urban farm?
Licht: We want to grow. We want to double and triple the number of Towers we have. We want to disrupt our community. We get in their face [and] talk about food insecurity and foodborne illness. We talk about water and single-use plastic. We are trying to open minds and hearts. We want people to get it. Don’t just sit there. Do something. We want to get people involved and start other farms.
Q. Lastly, what do you like about growing with Tower Garden?
Licht: It’s easy. It’s guaranteed success if you follow the directions. In our climate, we are by the beach. It’s hard for people to grow stuff in the ground. You’re growing this nutrient dense produce faster than inground, cleaner than inground, with less water and vertically less space. I would need acres to do what we do. No pesticides, no fertilizers, no soil. We are donating better and healthier food than you can go buy in any speciality market in our area.
Like Greg, are you ready to start growing your community farm? Become part of the Tower Garden family. Start with the twelve Tower set, take a look here. Send us a note for details.
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