You Say You Want a (Food) Revolution

Zooey Deschanel and Jacob Pechenik are empowering people to reconsider the food system and reconnect with what they eat

by Abby Moore
Lettuce Grow
Zooey Deschanel in front of Lettuce Grow's hydroponic Farmstands. Photograph by Max Wanger.

When Jacob Pechenik, entrepreneur, film producer and husband to actress Zooey Deschanel, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008, he met an Austinite on the expedition. The two hit it off, prompting Pechenik to visit the following month. He returned several times, soon making more friends in Austin than he had in the eight years he’d spent in New York.

“Austin has such a sense of community,” he says. “Right now, I spend most of my time in L.A., and it’s not that way at all.” So when it came time to launch their new company, Lettuce Grow, a hydroponic Farmstand and seedling subscription service, he and Deschanel chose Austin to be home to the company’s largest farm. “It’s perfect for Lettuce Grow,” Deschanel chimes in. “It’s a place where people have real pride in local food.”

Jacob Pechenik leaving the greenhouse where Lettuce Grow’s seedlings are grown. Photograph by Claire Schaper.

The network of farms, which extends into California and will soon include operations in Michigan and Florida, provides support for owners of Lettuce Grow’s Farmstands. The product, a minimalistic white tower made of ocean plastic, is sold in three heights. Each tier of the Farmstand has potting holes where seedlings are planted and grown. The concept empowers people to grow 20 percent of their food at home.

“We wanted to figure out a way we could make growing at home easy, affordable and accessible, and hydroponics was the perfect way to do that,” explains Deschanel. Rather than expecting members to acquire a green thumb, farmers nurture baby seedlings for the first two to three weeks, before distributing them through the company’s monthly subscription service.

Photograph of Pechenik and Deschanel by Laura Hajar.

The farmers and data scientists at Lettuce Grow work with members’ information to curate personalized packages. Zip codes indicate sunlight index and daily temperature so they can determine which varieties will grow and how quickly.

Along with the seedlings, they include recipes, to keep members consuming creatively. “We’re not just about growing food,” Pechenik says. “We’re about delivering nutrition and helping people eat better.”

The mission coincides with Deschanel and Pechenik’s other endeavor, The Farm Project, which empowers people to reconnect with food by raising awareness of agricultural practices and their ethical implications. The initiative was started after Deschanel became pregnant with their first child, in 2015.

“We wanted a healthy baby,” Pechenik says, “and that led to a lot of curiosity. ‘Why is good food so expensive and hard to come by when processed alternatives are free-flowing?’”

They decided through their health-conscious curiosities that the best way to solve the problem was to reengage consumers. The Farm Project qualifies people to have opinions on how their food is sourced, while Lettuce Grow provides them the resources to produce it themselves.

Photograph by Claire Schaper

“There’s really nothing stronger than letting people grow their own food,” Pechenik says. “When you raise something, watching it die or be thrown out is the most depressing feeling.”

According to Pechenik, 52 percent of produce is wasted in the current supply chain. A traditional food system sends lettuce over a journey of 10 or 11 days, he says. By the time it’s shelved, it may already be wilting. “Our lives were changed when we started growing food at home and saw how much more delicious and nutritious our food was when it didn’t have to travel thousands of miles,” recalls Deschanel.

The hydroponic device also reduces water waste by 95 percent, compared with a traditional garden. The electrical pump is triggered every 30 minutes, recirculating water within the Farmstand.

Photograph by Claire Schaper

Not only does Lettuce Grow eliminate environmental costs, it also eliminates the modern challenges of growing.

“We’ve been growing food for millions of years. It’s really in our DNA to do that,” Pechenik says. “But with 50 percent of the population living in cities, there’s not enough space, people don’t have time, and planting yields unpredictable results.”

Farmstands, however, can be placed on balconies and sidewalks and will soon be made for indoors. Explains Deschanel, “They allow you to grow tons of produce with very little time and effort.” The three-by-three-foot stand yields the same amount of produce as a 40-square-foot garden, making fresh food accessible regardless of space.

Scene from Agua Dulce farm, which is Lettuce Grow’s homebase. Photograph by Claire Schaper.

In an effort to eliminate other barriers to access, Deschanel and Pechenik implemented a give-back program, called Lettuce Give. For every 10 Farmstands sold, one is donated to an underserved school or community. “We believe everyone deserves fresh food grown with love,” says Deschanel. “It’s an important part of our mission to make this available to everyone.”

As parents to a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and a 22-month-old son, the founders share a passion for educating and fostering a healthy future for children.

Their toddler is evidence of the food revolution that could be sparked by like-minded initiatives. She eats broccoli, radishes and chives straight from the family’s Farmstand, according to Pechenik.

“I guess we’re our own client,” he says with a laugh, “but when our kids pick the food themselves, they’re proud of it. It opens the door for them to see the world in a different way.” Deschanel and Pechenik desire that experience for all of their members, so people will begin investing in food raised with love, care and nutritional value in mind.


Read More From the Food Issue | May 2019


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