jet setters

Photo by Lauren Mandel

Like most of us, you probably spent a fair slice of this holiday season in transit, traveling by car, bus, train, or perhaps even by airplane.  With time-sucking security check points and flight delays, airline travel certainly isn’t as glamorous as it once was, but one stressor may be on the up-and-up: the food.

On Monday, The New York Times reported on a rising trend in farm-fresh food within American airports in an article aptly named “Airports Modernize Dining Options With Farm-to-Terminal Fare.”  Journalist Matt Krupnick reminds us of the fast food and stale, prepackaged sandwiches that most of us have regrettably grown accustomed to while traveling by plane or wading through layovers.  According to Krupnick, though, “[t]he farm-to-table movement has come to airports across the country, bringing fresh, local produce, meat and other goods to restaurants led by well-known chefs and shops with local culinary specialties.”  My own 2014 travel experiences corroborate Krupnick’s assertion of star chefs bringing local food to airports.  For example, the Philadelphia International Airport now houses celebrity chef Jose Garces’ restaurant called Local (Terminal F), and Chicago O’Hare International Airport similarly boasts chef Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera (Terminals 1, 3 and 5).  Krupnick adds that restaurants operated by OTG Management at Newark Liberty International Airport’s newly renovated Terminal C will be required to buy local three times per week from spring through fall.

How local can airport food be grown?  Most farm-fresh ingredients are trucked in from within 50 miles or coordinated through a third party purveyor, such as FarmLogix, but in 2011 Chicago O’Hare International Airport became one of the first to grow food directly on site.  The airport’s indoor Aeroponic Garden, located in the Rotunda Building within Terminal 3, provides leafy greens and herbs year-round to diners in more than four airport restaurants, including Tortas Frontera and Wolfgang Puck.  JetBlue is considering following O’Hare’s lead by growing potatoes or other crops at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Chicago O’Hare International Airport’s aeroponic garden || photo by Chicago Department of Aviation

Top: Hydroponic rooftop greenhouse in Gowanas, NY / Bottom: Los Angeles International Airport || photos by Lauren Mandel

But why grow indoors or on the ground rather than cultivating the endless acres of airport rooftops?  Rooftop agriculture at airports makes good sense for several reasons that we should ruminate on in 2015:

1| Reducing food miles: Shipping food can be costly and contribute to traffic congestion, pollution, and excess packaging, while resulting in diminished flavor and nutrient levels in many fruits and vegetables.  The closer that crops are produced to the end user (i.e. restaurant or vendor), the more flavorful and sustainable the result is likely to be.

2| Creating jobs: Airports are often one of the largest employers in a city.  Adding on-site food production would result in skilled and un-skilled job creation.

3| Ensuring food safety: Aircraft pollution poses a serious risk to food grown in fields underneath jet streams.  Growing food hydroponically in greenhouses above buildings with large footprints (such as those at airports) protects crops from toxic particulate.  This type of year-round production produces high, predictable yields.

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