Where Are They Now Update with Levo International
IDH first connected with Levo International in April 2020 (read: UConn Student Founds Innovative Social Enterprise Nonprofit). Founder Christian Heiden recently reached out to share an update about the startup, which was founded in 2015 and incorporated in Connecticut in 2017:
A young social enterprise on Arbor Street in Hartford, Levo International is empowering Hartford residents with access to fresh vegetables and the ability to earn extra cash. Using a unique formulation of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), suburban residents have the opportunity to purchase fresh vegetables delivered to their neighborhood from “micro-farms” in Hartford. The Hartford residents acting as growers, earn cash while getting access to the same fresh vegetables.
Levo, which began as a family project in 2015 with the goal of fighting hunger in Haiti, is a nonprofit corporation with expertise in simplified hydroponics growing vegetables using only fertilized water. Christian Heiden, who grew up in Bloomfield, founded the organization with the support of his father and brother as an extension of his Eagle Scout project when he was 16 years old. “The leverage this technology offered to areas where traditional agriculture is difficult or impossible is astounding,” according to Christian.
By avoiding the use of soil, hydroponics substantially reduces the variability and risks associated with traditional agriculture. In the United States, hydroponics is used primarily at the commercial level, which is very expensive; the Levo team came up with a way to apply the same concept in a much less expensive way, thereby offering citizens of developing economies the chance to grow their own food and potentially sell it to their neighbors, as well.
With the onset of the pandemic and the dramatic rise in food insecurity here in Connecticut, the Levo team accelerated its efforts to bring their approach to its own backyard. Christian says the CSA is the next phase of the project will use a market-based approach.
“The concept is simple,” according to Christian’s father Bill, who continues to work on the enterprise with his son. “You prepay for great produce delivered to convenient locations throughout the spring-summer and fall. The fact that it helps provide economic opportunity to Hartford residents, the fact that local vegetables are healthier, the fact that local produce is better for the environment, the fact that the proceeds support food security for impoverished populations, that is all bonus.”
Almost all of Hartford is a food desert. According to the USDA, low income, high levels of unemployment, inadequate access to transportation, and a low number of food retailers providing fresh produce at affordable prices are all indicators of a food desert. In the first year, Levo is targeting its efforts to work with 100 residents of North Hartford. Each of these growers will receive payments based on their harvests, as well as a share of the program’s net proceeds at the end of the growing season. They will also each be “subscribers” in the CSA, so will receive a share of the produce.
“This is just the start, but it is an important start. It gives people a chance to take control of their own food security, at the individual level,” says Christian.
In the first year, the CSA is being offered with a half dozen pickup locations in Hartford and West Hartford. Christian credits “great partnerships” with community organizations and businesses for his optimism.
“The Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry and the Joan C. Dauber Food Pantry at St. Francis Hospital were quick to support the program and Nassau Financial Group reached out to us when they heard about what we were doing,” he noted. Partners are providing financial support, distribution sites, farming locations, volunteers, “and of course subscriptions.”
The CSA is an opportunity for individuals to make a small change to how they buy the vegetables they’re already purchasing, and in doing so improve the quality of the local economy. Subscriptions come in both couple and family sizes and begin at just $425 for the six-month season. “For what equates to $16 a week, you can have picked yesterday’s veggies, not something that has been trucked across the continent for the past week.”