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South City Company Grows Greens Indoors to Counter Farm Land Losses

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Project Open Hand relies on fresh produce deliveries to feed nutritious meals to Bay Area people with health conditions.

When COVID-19 hit, CEO Paul Hepfer was worried about a shortage of leafy greens until he got good news from a key supplier.

"They were able to step up even more during that time because it was even harder for our clients to get access to food," Hepfer said.

That source is Plenty, an indoor vertical farm company in South San Francisco.

Spokesperson Shireen Santosham said the six-year-old startup tripled donations to food banks and grocery stores when coronavirus and lockdowns disrupted the food supply chain.

"Because we're local, in some cases we were one of the only products on the shelf," said Santosham, Plenty's head of strategic initiatives.

From its 10,000-square-foot warehouse, Plenty produces arugula, kale, lettuce and salad blends in a vertical farm that's contained, sterile and automated.

"Compared to traditional farming, we can produce 200 to 350 times the yield," Santosham said.

Plenty is already in more than 40 Bay Area stores and online.

During the pandemic, the company extended its reach to more than 400 Albertsons stores statewide.

"It's definitely highlighted the value of our model," said Plenty co-founder Nate Storey.

He says that, compared to farming in the fields, Plenty's indoor model uses less than 5 percent of the water and less than 1 percent of the land.

"So we're able to produce very clean, delicious, nutritious produce 365 days a year without fail," Storey said.

"It's completely pesticide-free; no need to wash because we grow it in these hyper-clean rooms," Santosham added.

The kale tastes sweet. Storey says that's because Plenty picks the best crops then provides the best light and nutrients, without using GMOs.

"When you give plants the perfect environment, they grow really well and plants that grow really well, plants that are really, really healthy, also taste great," Storey explained.

Plenty itself is growing, with a new warehouse in Compton and the addition of strawberries through a partnership with Driscoll in Watsonville.

The company has made news with reports it has backing by some high-profile tech investors like Amazon's Jeff Bezos and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

"This is ultimately a platform that is going to be growing dozens and dozens of field crops over the next few years," Storey said.

With less available farmland and a greater demand for healthy food, Plenty plans to pack in more produce one warehouse at a time.

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