One in five American children suffer from “food insecurity,” meaning an individual does not have reliable access to food. Cities across the country are known as “food deserts,” when nutritious food is produced far outside the reach of inner city inhabitants. Residents of food deserts tend to rely on processed foods like boxed macaroni and cheese. These items are classified as “food items” by the FDA, not actual food.
The city of Camden is considered a food desert. Fredric Byarm, the founder of Invincible City Farms, is trying to change that.
His company is focused on urban farming, a type of farming that can be accomplished in a city environment utilizing indoor greenhouses. His business model is a commercial farm. Invincible City Farms will produce crops and sell to local corner and grocery stores, as well as “anchor institutions,” organizations that work with neighborhoods and promote community that will provide access to fresh food for Camden residents.
“A lot of the resources pumped into Camden seem to be focused on the top,” said Byarm. “We need to get those resources down to the bottom, where the everyday Camden resident lives.” Byarm created Invincible City Farms to give Camden residents access to food.
Byarm believes if fresh food was in closer proximity to cities, the cost to produce would go down and more city residents would choose to eat healthier. “The average food to plate is about 1,300 miles and they’re not getting into the inner cities,” said Byarm.
He cites a study done by Rutgers-Camden’s Civic Engagement and The Neighborhood Center which found in 2016 that 94 percent of city residents would eat fresh food “daily” or “often” if they were given the option.
“There’s an untapped market in the city that we can appeal to,” said Byarm, but finances are not his only goal.
Invincible City Farms won $25,000 for the Camden Catalyst Award, a pitch competition that values a company’s dedication to the city of Camden more than anything else. Judges said Byarm’s financials are solid, but ultimately he wanted to contribute to the city’s revitalization, a goal he shares with Khai Tren, one of the founders of the Camden Catalyst award.
“We figured, if we’re trying to bring new business in here, why not give business that’s already here a chance?” said Tren.
Tren, who is also the founder of the economic development organization Waterfront Ventures based in Camden, founded the award with four other city locals and structured its grading criteria to focus on commitment to the city.
Applicants for the award had to fulfill three requirements: the company had to be headquartered in Camden, employees must be residents of Camden and within three years, 50 percent of the company’s workforce must live in Camden.
It was this criteria that gave Byarm an edge, since his project was always about supporting Camden, sometimes at the expense of traditional business wisdom.
For example, urban farming — like many industries — has been dominated by robotics and advanced manufacturing. The automation process allows for larger yields with fewer works and better bottom lines.
AeroFarms is one of the many urban farming companies that use automation. The Newark-based company announced earlier this year its intention to build the nation’s largest indoor farm in Camden. AeroFarms will receive $11.14 million in tax incentives over 10 years and plans to employ 56 workers to manage its 78,000 square-foot farm.
Despite their close proximity, neither company sees the other as a threat to their business.
“This is complementary, not competition,” said Marc Oshima, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of AeroFarms, about Invincible City Farms.
Oshima said that the two companies have different business models. AeroFarms takes advantage of cutting-edge technology and methods of reducing waste to produce the highest yields possible to “feed the masses.”
Invincible City Farms isn’t taking advantage of automation technology. Instead, Byarm wants to commit his company to “permaculture” farming, a process developed in the 1970s that creates a self-maintained ecosystem by reusing waste and is considered more labor intensive.
Byarm wanted a process that required a lot of manual labor to provide more jobs for the city.
Invincible City Farms hopes to expand to 150 workers, all hired from Camden, within the next three to five years.
The manual process may diminish the potential of the company’s bottom line, but Byarm believes in focusing on the triple bottom line, one that takes into account social and environmental factors in addition to economic value.
“For every $1 invested in Invincible City Farms, we return $3.55 back to the community in regards to reduced health care and reduced poverty,” said Byarm. “We really do change the trajectory of individual lives in the city.”
Byarm’s commitment to helping the city isn’t an empty platitude, his pitch process to the Camden Catalyst Award made judges believe he could achieve it.
“His business proposition is quite compelling,” said Chris Kohl vice president and Chief Information Officer for Vertex Inc., one of the many judges for the Camden Catalyst Award. “If he can pull this off, imagine people eating an apple versus a candy bar. There might be something there.”
Byarm stumbled upon urban farming after closing his last restaurant on the east coast in 2010. From there he moved west to Arizona, and later Colorado, where he worked for hospitals that coordinated with local food banks to donate goods for those in need.
That work led him to growing fruits and vegetables out of a defunct nursery, since growing food was cheaper than buying it on the market. He donated what wasn’t used.
When Byarm found himself back on the east coast, he researched business ventures for urban farming and decided Camden was an ideal place to start.
“There’s an untapped market in the city that we can appeal to,” said Byarm.