Chaz Shelton loves food. Healthy organic, locally produced food. He wants others to love it too — and reap the health and culinary benefits. But how to get fresh locally grown fruits and veggies to people who either don’t have ready access to it or can’t afford it?

Shelton, who recently completed his MBA from Indiana University-Bloomington, decided to take a stab at remedying this grub conundrum — not to mention the problem of world hunger. His company, Merchant’s Garden, aims to get farm-fresh food to everyone, particularly city dwellers, using an eco-friendly, soil-less agricultural method called aquaponics (a combination of fish farming and water-based plant cultivation known as hydroponics.) All this is housed inside a computer-controlled greenhouse.

“Instead of looking at the problem of how do we distribute food and get it to the city, we thought why not just bring the farm into the city?” Shelton says. “Our mission is to make fresh food affordable and accessible to everyone.”

Aquaponics grow bed at Merchant’s GardenUsing the concept of aquaponics, lettuce is grown in soil-less beds. (Photo: Merchant's Garden)

Fresh-food inequality

Back in 2011, Shelton was getting his master’s degree in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania and working with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health when he began noticing how few fresh foods were available to inner-city residents and how detrimental it was health-wise.

“I worked a lot with homeless shelters and got to see a number of adverse health outcomes,” he says. “I thought, man this is crazy — how do we get the right food to the right people? How do we change the deal on hunger?”

These questions kept at gnawing at him, especially after learning that one-third of food produced worldwide is wasted due to poor agricultural methods, inadequate distribution channels, and lack of proper storage — while one in eight people suffer from chronic hunger. In the U.S. alone almost 50 million (including about 16 million kids) don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Even middle-class urbanites find it hard to come by fresh locally grown produce because small sustainable farmers don’t always have the means to get it to them or compete with big food conglomerates.

Shelton was convinced that food production and distribution needed a major overhaul, and instinctively turned to private industry for the best sustainable solution. He ended up forgoing his master’s degree for a graduate certificate in economic growth and development and promptly enrolled in Indiana University’s MBA program to help him devise a bold entrepreneurial plan that could help feed the world.

Inspiration finally gelled the following summer after Shelton’s parents, who live in Tucson, Arizona, told him about an aquaponics program at the University of Arizona. On a trip home, he began working with experts there to test the water-based method in the heart of downtown Tucson. He started with lettuce, grown in soil-less beds bathed in recirculated nutrient-rich waste water pumped from nearby fish tanks, and Merchant’s Garden took off.

“It’s local production for local consumption that’s entirely organic and uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming,” says Shelton. “During the summer, we had a chance to sell to over eight restaurants, a retail grocery store, a farmer’s market, and to Ryan Clark, a three-time Tucson Iron Chef who said it was the freshest nicest food he’s ever seen.”

Merchant's Garden co-founders Chaz Shelton (left) and Bill Shriver.Merchant's Garden co-founders Chaz Shelton (left) and Bill Shriver. (Photo: Merchant's Garden)

Healthy food as a right, not a luxury

After returning for his final year of business school last fall, Shelton further buffed his business plan so he and co-founders Bill Shriver and Bruno Cerozi could take it full time. Major financial validation came in April when Merchant’s Garden won $100,000 in the university’s 2015 BEST competition.

Currently, the partners are planning to construct a production facility in downtown Tucson. The idea is to build aquaponic greenhouses either on city rooftops (see photo) or on vacant city lots, and grow out-of-season produce. “We don’t want to put local farmers out of business,” Shelton says. “We monitor the pH levels, the alkalinity, the humidity and temperature in a computer-controlled facility to mimic the absolute perfect growing environment, so regardless of season we can give people fruits and vegetables they couldn’t otherwise get.”

Growing and harvesting everything in a centrally located one-stop shop also saves on distribution and resource costs and cuts waste. Merchant’s Garden will deliver food in refrigerated trucks to restaurants, grocery stores, schools and other organizations within a 100-mile radius to cut down on fuel use and food spoilage (major problems in traditional long-haul distribution).

“We don’t harvest the food until an order is placed to ensure it’s fresh,” Shelton says. “That way we don’t lose as much crop and we don’t have to use any preservatives to ensure it’s alive when it gets there.”

Merchant’s Garden will also have a small retail store so consumers can stop in for garden-fresh lettuce, tomatoes and other greens, and even pick everything themselves.

Best of all, lower production costs means more affordable locally grown organic produce, which is less costly than local conventionally grown organic food, though still slightly pricier than its non-organic counterpart.

Food for thought

Shelton’s plan is to spread Merchant’s Garden to cities across the U.S. and hopefully chip away at poor eating habits that have spiked disease and obesity rates in recent years.

“If we can make our greenhouses and retail fronts as common as convenience stores I think we might have a systematic change in the way people think about eating,” he says. “Hopefully they’ll say, ‘This is something I desire more than sugary drinks and candy.’”

Ultimately, Shelton and his partners aspire to something even bigger — feeding masses of hungry people around the globe without turning to genetically engineered crops (a highly touted but controversial method that many experts claim is the only real solution ). Aquaponics could be harnessed in places considered unfarmable, for instance in sub-Sahara Africa. Likewise, small-scale operations could be quickly erected at disaster sites (such as Nepal, recently struck by devastating earthquakes) so victims get fresh food that isn’t shipped from thousands of miles away.

“We’re big dreamers and believers, and want to at least start addressing these problems around the world,” Shelton says.

Related on MNN:

Merchant's Garden: Bringing the farm to the city
Young entrepreneur wants to bring fresh food to inner city residents through aquaponics.