As incredibly healthy as leafy greens are, they also happen to be among the biggest contributors to food waste in the U.S. Roughly 76 percent of all the greens we grow wind up being tossed, in part because they're so highly perishable. They also take a tremendous amount of farmland and resources to grow, and are considered one of the most dangerous food categories, because of pesticide use and contamination issues.
Related: 2018 EatingWell American Food Heroes
Throw these challenges at a critical thinker like Marc Oshima, and what you get is AeroFarms—the world's largest indoor vertical farm company. Its four facilities, based in Newark, New Jersey, produce more than 2 million pounds of leafy greens a year using aeroponics—a method that doesn't require soil and uses very little water. "The plant's roots are misted, as opposed to bathed, so it's a way of growing that uses 95 percent less water than field farming and 40 percent less than hydroponics," Oshima explains. "And because we can give the plants exactly what they need, when they need it, we can have around 30 harvests a year, versus a conventional farm's two or three, and grow in less than half the time." The produce—which has since expanded to everything from cucumbers to root vegetables—is also selected for flavor and nutrition, and because they grow up, not out, AeroFarms uses less than 1 percent of the land that's necessary to sprout the same yield in the field. The controlled indoor environment all but eliminates waste and food-safety concerns, as well. And while skeptics point to the large amount of energy vertical farms require to grow their produce (minus the sun), Oshima is conscious of this issue and uses things like special, energy-efficient LED lights to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
Last year, AeroFarms opened its biggest facility yet—a 70,000-square-foot building dedicated to its wholesale business, selling greens to restaurants, food service companies and supermarkets like Whole Foods and ShopRite. Sprinkling its vertical farms around Newark was a deliberate move. Being hyper-localized allows it to distribute its produce faster, so it arrives fresher and lasts longer—equaling a lot less waste. "We also wanted to focus on bringing year-round jobs to areas with very high rates of underemployment," says Oshima. "Access to fresh, healthy produce is really limited here, as well, so we open our doors to the community and make it very affordable. It's as much about societal goals as environmental goals." With plans to expand to 25 new locations worldwide, including northern Europe, China and the Middle East, AeroFarms makes our list this year for proving that growing delicious, environmentally responsible produce can also be done on a grand scale.
His favorite salad: "My biggest go-to green is watercress. Not only is it a superfood that has more vitamin C than an orange, but we have developed a watercress that has this really zesty great profile that I enjoy in the morning on salmon toast."
Advice for people who want to make better food choices: "Vote with your wallet!"
Surprising fact: He was a world champion fencer.