In an interview with PSFK in collaboration with Verizon, Joy Youwakim discusses how she is using technology for good in her work with growing produce on top of landfills, putting waste to use and offering communities locally-grown food as well as helping to alleviate hunger

In a special series brought to you with the help of our partner Verizon, The Pioneers of Humanability is directing the spotlight onto the people, organizations and companies who are using technology to do more new and do more good in the world.

Food security and shortage of nutritious food options are major problems for at-risk communities who often lack the transportation and resources to make healthier eating choices. Often located in urban environments, these so-called food deserts come down to a question of cost and access. Supermarkets and other providers don’t find it economically-viable to serve these populations, creating a void. A radical reuse of space to raise fresh produce in close proximity to these residents is one strategy hoping to solve this challenge. Joy Youwakim, an economics student at UT Austin and one of PSFK’s featured Pioneers of Humanability, has introduced a model for growing produce on top of landfills. In this interview with PSFK, Joy explains why land renewal and its accompanying technology is a public good that has the ability to create sustainable food sources and self-sufficient communities, while decreasing the environmental impact of landfills.  

PSFK: In what ways do you think technology has the potential to impact humanity, making a positive social difference?

Joy: Technology has the potential to impact humanity by decreasing resource gaps and socio-economic inequality. New technologies have the ability to create new types of jobs, provide more education to groups of all ages, and from an environmental standpoint, provide clean water and increase food accessibility.

What are some of the most exciting ways your work creates a positive impact? What were some of your most recent accomplishments?

Growing produce on top of landfills is one possible solution to increase economic autonomy and food security in food deserts and other underserved communities. Landfills can often be found on the outskirts of major cities, affecting the household wealth of surrounding areas by lowering property values. By using the landfill as a readily available, free, and clean food source, this project can help offset some of the negative externalities caused by the presence of landfills. They also make for direct access to locally grown, fresh produce, which means produce that is more nutrient rich and uses less carbon to transport than other produce sources. Some of the most recent accomplishments of this work are being awarded grant money from General Mills!

What inspired you to do more new and do more good?

Once I saw a photo of a covered landfill, my first thought was, “Why don't we already grow food on top of these?” Personally, hunger issues affect everyone, and we have the capabilities to feed more people and waste less of the food that we produce. 2018 is too late, my work is trying to play catch up. This approach makes use of a resource that is otherwise underutilized and abundant in quantity across the U.S.

What are the biggest benefits of this approach? Challenges to overcome?

The benefits of this model are alleviating urban poverty and directly increasing food access which will hopefully directly increase household wealth and health. Challenges will be locating reliable water sources and finding efficient ways to both grow as much food as possible and distribute it to families who need it.

What is needed to scale this method to more places?

In order to scale this method, initial testing must be done on landfill spaces across the U.S. This means municipal governments being willing to take on this sort of work. In order to encourage this, we are doing as much research as possible about our own test plot in Austin and will publish the results. We are also working on a city plan that could work here and also serve as a model for other cities.

What do you think sustainable and environmentally-friendly agricultural will look like in the future?

Future sustainable agriculture will make use of underutilized, available spaces and resources and use innovative solutions to not only feed people locally, but also to alleviate global hunger and poverty.

Innovating ways of repurposing land are creating more natural resources and moving us closer to a sustainable future. For more about how innovators like Joy are using technology to serve progressive goals and better the community for all, see The Pioneers of Humanability, brought to you by PSFK with Verizon.

Verizon’s Pioneers of Humanability list honors the people, organizations and companies that are using technological innovations to bring about good things for the world. These are the pioneers, keeping food safe and water clean, cutting pollution, saving energy and enabling doctors to treat patients a county or a country away. They’ve stopped asking “What if?” or “Why isn’t?” and started doing and leading. These are the people, organizations and companies you need to know about now—because they’re building the future.