Where does your food come from? And how far did it travel to get to you?
These questions, while important, are often the most difficult to answer as celebrity couple Zooey Deschanel and Jacob Pechenik discovered while expecting their first child in 2015.
“We really started thinking about what I was eating and where it was coming from,” explained the star of the hit sitcom "New Girl."
“We found it often difficult to gather information about the food we were eating.”
Deschanel said the Manhattan Beach-based couple made an effort to move towards fresh foods from known and trusted sources.
But, as Pechenik explained, even organic, fresh food at the supermarket had its drawbacks.
“We found that it was just really expensive and inaccessible,” Pechenik said, noting the supply chain from farm to distribution is built for shelf-stabilized, preserved foods that can travel 10 days. “We thought there has to be a better way.”
Pechenik, an entrepreneur and film producer with a degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began to investigate ways to make home gardening simpler and more effective.
“We wanted to make it easier for people to grow at home because freshly picked produce tastes the best and is the most nutritious,” Deschanel added.
Thus, Lettuce Grow was born.
The startup company wants to get people growing up to 20 percent of their own food, regardless of their circumstances, according to Pechenik.
“The whole thing is democratizing access to food,” he said of the Los-Angeles based company, now in its roughly 18th month of operation. “My short-term goal is to get a million people growing in the next four to five years.”
To help people reconnect with what they eat, Pechenik enlisted the help of fellow MIT graduate Greg Campbell, who has a degree in electrical engineering, to create the company.
“We’ve got to supply our smarts to reconfigure the way food works,” Pechenik said about bringing Campbell on board.
A Farmstand of your very own
Lettuce Grow contains two parts: a system and a subscription.
A sleek, beautiful tower-like white "vase," called a Farmstand, houses the hydroponic system. It comes in three sizes ranging in price from $399 to $469.
The Farmstands are made of recycled ocean-bound plastic from Haiti, according to Pechenik. They can be placed in small areas such as apartment balconies or stairways, eliminating the need for a yard or outdoor space to grow food.
Campbell explained a Farmstand can house 24 to 36 various plants at a time, requiring only electricity and light to yield perfect, edible harvests.
“You can grow many different things all at once. Whereas in a garden, even a 40-sq. ft. garden, it would be pretty hard to manage all those different types of plants,” Campbell said.
Pechenik noted the self-watering, hydroponic system—which intermittently nourishes the plants’ roots with water and nutrients recirculated from the Farmstand’s base—extends the harvest life.
He said the Farmstand helps plants grow 30 percent faster, uses considerably less water than traditional gardening and will even enable customers to grow indoors with the addition of a specialized light the company is working on.
It also takes the guesswork out of growing your own food, he added.
“Growing in the ground makes it harder to have predictable harvests,” Pechenik said, noting a much longer turnaround time is common in traditional gardening. “This makes growing reliable.”
Deschanel said the Farmstand makes growing at home much easier.
“We do have raised beds...but our Lettuce Grow Farmstand requires so little maintenance compared to traditional gardening,” she explained.
The other important element of Lettuce Grow’s operation is ready-to-plant seedlings and nutrients delivered to your doorstep every other week.
To get started growing, customers need simply to pop their plant seedlings into their Farmstand, add water and nutrients to the base and plug the system in, according to the company.
As part of a subscription ranging from $49 to $69 per month, customers can select from up to 75 different edible plant varieties that change seasonally. These include some unique options such as Pechenik’s favorite wasabi arugula or Campbell’s personal preference: bright lights rainbow chard.
“I think a lot of things that you get at the grocery, you might have to have a certain taste for it. But when they grow in the Farmstands are so much better. They’re delicious,” Campbell said, noting Lettuce Grow produce is packed with more nutrients and flavor than their grocery store counterparts.
The Lettuce Grow team will even help customers select which plants will grow best based on weather, season and location.
The company is also in the process of creating an app that will allow customers to scan their plants and get recipes.
“We have a whole system where we have recipes to tell you how to make swiss chard taste good (for example),” Pechenik said.
Lettuce Grow also has the goal, Pechenik added, to make the app able to help people troubleshoot issues with their device and harvests to ensure their plants are successful.
The goal of delivering the plants as seedlings, as Campbell explained, is to remove the labor and inconsistency often associated with gardening from scratch, while perfecting the product.
“If you just put the seeds in the dirt, you may or may not get anything. And you have to wait the full time for the seed to mature,” Campbell said. “With the subscription, you’re getting plants that are already successful. They’ve already overcome most of the hurdles of becoming a mature plant because a professional, local farmer has already gotten you that far.”
To ensure the pre-germinated seedlings arrive at the perfect time to be planted, the company is striving to minimize travel time from farm to customers’ doorsteps, according to Pechenik.
“We are building a network of farms across the country that would service their area so that the seedlings are only traveling one to two days max to get you,” Pechenik explained.
The company currently has headquarters in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, as well as a farm in Santa Barbara. Lettuce Grow is also establishing farms in Northern California, Michigan and Florida, he said.
Growing and growing
Lettuce Grow currently offers delivery exclusively in the United States, with the goal of international expansion, according to Pechenik.
“We’ll just grow and grow and grow,” he mused.
But first, he added, the company wants to make a local impression.
“First, we want to get Manhattan Beach. Then we’ll get Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach and Playa Vista.” Pechenik said. He and Deschanel as well as Campbell’s family are residents of the area.
“What we’d like to do in every community where we have a strong base is to support the specific schools in that community,” he continued.
Thus, Lettuce Grow has promised to donate one Farmstand apparatus to a school or community organization for every ten subscription signups, according to the company’s website.
Pechenik said the company is in the process of working with local groups to create a curriculum around the Farmstands and is taking requests from local schools and community organizations.
He said Lettuce Grow’s simple concept creates a unique opportunity to educate children about where their food comes from and gets them excited about healthy eating.
“When you normally just cook the food and you put it on the plate, they’re like 'ehh.' But when they see it grow and they’re part of it, they’re so much more likely to eat it and enjoy it,” Pechenik said.
Deschanel said the couple’s two young children particularly enjoy broccoli, cauliflower, sweet peppers and cabbage.
“If you put lemon juice and olive oil and some seasoning on the vegetables, it’s really hard to hate them!” she mused.
As Pechenik explained, the goal of Lettuce Grow is not only to get people growing their own food but to inspire them to live healthier lifestyles.
“With this system, there’s something you can harvest everyday,” he explained.“When you have that, then you can actually build a lifestyle around that. You can say we’re cooking at home and that starts people on this whole journey of living better.”
Visit lettucegrow.com to learn more.