HENDERSON — The Help Center had its monthly food distribution program on Monday. This month, they supplemented their usual items with produce from a Flex Farm, a vertical hydroponics device which the center obtained using a grant.
Each fourth Monday of the month, the center opens its food pantry to families in need. They get anywhere from 100 to 200 families on those days, CEO and Founder Twanna Jones said. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, that number got as high as 500.
Those numbers aren’t meant to impress you — Jones said the center’s goal “is not to see long lines — we want to see people become self-sufficient.”
As an example, Jones said once met a woman who was living entirely out of her car — Jones secured for her a job interview that very day. When she has a job, she could go into housing and eventually turn to volunteer work to give back. That, Jones said, is what “reshapes our community and the nation, is all of us working together.”
Reshaping the community is why she founded the Help Center — you can’t change things without action, Jones said. Seeing her parents and grandparents do the same inspired her to follow suit.
“I don’t have riches and gold to pass down to our four kids,” Jones said. “What I can pass down to them is to love and be kind, be compassionate, whatever you can do, do something. Make a difference.”
As for why the organization obtained a Flex Farm, Jones said, “We want our community to receive fresher food options. Sometimes, it’s harder to get those in the winter months… This right here is an alternative for families.
“We also look at it as a teaching mechanism for our youth in schools,” Jones continued, allowing students to see the growth of a seed into a sprout and beyond.
For now, the Flex Farm will be used to produce culinary herbs like cilantro and basil to encourage families to spice up their meals and ultimately spend more time together, Jones said.
“God has given us all these wonderful options and we want to teach people and give them not only recipes,” Jones said, “we want to give them the tools and everything they need to have a successful and healthier lifestyle.”
But the Help Center, through its other partnerships, distributes other food items like lettuce and non-food items like diapers to low or no-income families. A mobile pantry delivers food to people who can’t get to the center — all these services and more touch eleven counties.
“Putting a smile on someone’s face or providing a service like this is all worth it… love is our foundation,” Jones said.
Now, back to the Flex Farm. It’s a patented product by Wisconsin-based tech startup Fork Farms. By mimicking natural processes, to grow produce faster than outdoor farming, according to FF CEO and founder Alex Tyink. A nutrient-rich water solution drips down onto the plants’ roots while white-colored panels reflect light onto the vertically-arranged crop. The device closes up, giving light little opportunity to escape. High winds, rain, soil quality and anything else Mother Nature might throw at crops aren’t part of the equation.
A Flex Farm only needs four kilowatts of energy to grow its yield, compared to the industry-standard 18 kilowatts, said Tyink. One farm is capable of producing 25 pounds of fresh food in 28 days using only nine square feet of space — 99% more efficient than outdoor farming, Tyink said. On top of that, each pound of food costs around 67 cents to produce.
“In today’s world, with inflation, and wars and climate change and all that good stuff, that’s pretty significant, because people are paying quite a lot more than that for that food,” Tyink said.
But, Fork Farms’ goal goes further than just inventing an efficient farming device — the company wants to get people interested in growing their own food at a scale large enough to make a nutritional impact using a simple process. That, Tyink said, encourages people to live healthier and happier.
He speaks from experience.
Tyink, who’s from Wisconsin, traveled to New York City to pursue a career as an opera singer in 2010. By chance, he met a man who ran a rooftop farm which fed those who worked on it and other community members. Tyink, wanting a reason to get out and about, joined in and ate fresh produce he had cultivated himself.
“Eating better really helped me get through some depression and anxiety stuff I had going on at the time and really just sent me down a better path,” Tyink said. “And I thought to myself, man, is it really that simple? If you help people grow their own food they’re going to be more willing and likely to eat it and enjoy it? And then they’re going to get all the benefits of eating well because they’re engaging in it?”
In the same year Tyink founded Fork Farms. Having run the company for a decade, Tyink said “we’re finding more and more that it is that simple.”
Director of Partnerships Josh Mahlik shared a similar backstory. He was once in product development and design in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — professionally he was doing well, but the work left him unfulfilled.
Joining Fork Farms has allowed him to take part in projects like the partnership with Henderson’s Help Center — helping “communities build resiliency” and figuring out how to “deploy fresh food technology to the places where people actually live, work and play.”
Each time they get a new partner, “it’s incredibly fulfilling,” Mahlik said.