Cultivating a lifestyle that's good for you and for the planet is harder than it seems.

Consumers are increasingly aware they should eat more fresh produce, understand where their food comes from, and choose organic when possible. So you get in your car, drive to the supermarket, grab a plastic clamshell full of greens, and fill up some plastic bags with veggies and drive home. Now you have the makings of a healthy dinner -- but from an environmental standpoint, it would've been better to make mac 'n' cheese from a box. 

Zooey Deschanel and Jacob Pechenik started thinking about these issues four years ago when Deschanel, the star of the sitcom New Girl and co-founder of the website Hello Giggles, was pregnant with their first child. "We started asking a lot more questions about food -- wondering where everything came from, how we could pack a nutritional punch from our meals," Deschanel recalled recently. 

During the SXSW festival in Austin last month, she and Pechenik showed me the end result of those inquiries: a modular hydroponic unit they call the Farmstand, the first product from their new startup, Lettuce Grow. Looking like a cross between a fancy bong designed by Jony Ive and one of those new-school security robots that patrols the mall, the Farmstand is a vertical garden that takes up no more floor space than a coat rack and makes growing family-size quantities of edible greens absurdly simple. All this happens thanks to a curvilinear white pillar. Its surface is studded with holes, into which you insert pre-potted seedlings of kale, Swiss chard, eggplant, tomatoes, and other veggies. Every two weeks, more seedling cups arrive in the mail to replace the ones you've harvested. 

The Farmstand is scalable: If you want to grow more food, you just buy more units and stack them on the ones you already have. (The entry-level version costs $399, plus $49 per month for the seedlings.) It's both customizable, in that it offers different subscription plans based around salad greens, superfoods, or seasonal vegetables, and foolproof, with an algorithm that factors in local climate, weather, and user feedback and an automated internal irrigation system that keeps everything perfectly hydrated.

"You can't build a healthy eating lifestyle if you don't have predictable results," Pechenik said. 

It's also ecofriendly. The mailers the seedlings come in are both recycled and recyclable, and the modular Farmstand units are made from used plastic milk jugs collected from Haiti, where the lack of recycling facilities would have likely led to their being dumped into the ocean. Recycled plastic of this type is both more expensive and harder to work with than the new sort, said Pechenik. "It's more of a pain in the butt to use in every way," he said. "Everyone said, 'Don't do it, don't do it.' But when I was looking at designing this, I went to a couple of manufacturing facilities where they made, like, plastic fence posts. I couldn't believe the acres of new plastic stuff being made. I just didn't want to contribute to it." 

Its vertical form factor makes the Farmstand sustainable in another way: It only requires a 3'x3' patch of ground to produce the amount of food you'd get from a garden of 40 square feet. That means people who live in small apartments in dense, energy-efficient urban environments can grow their own greens on a balcony or even a fire escape. Later this year, Lettuce Grow will release a new version with ring-shaped fluorescent lamps, allowing for indoor growing. 

Pechenik and Deschanel say their mission is to allow people to grow at least 20 percent of their food at home. (They also have a public benefit corporation, the Farm Project, whose aim is to help people "reconnect with their food.") "I think the reason people don't like vegetables is they haven't tasted a really, really fresh one," Deschanel says. "If you cook, use good ingredients, use a good olive oil, season it well, everything tastes good easily."

Deschanel does most of the cooking for their family. Beyond homegrown greens and vegetables' tasting better, she says, letting kids pick their own makes them more inclined to like those foods. "If you just give them broccoli on a plate, they don't really want to eat it," she says. "But if they're outside and they see it growing, it's fascinating." 

Published on: Apr 11, 2019