On a recent Saturday morning, two young girls stood in front of a large case with glass walls in the produce section of a QFC (Quality Food Centers) grocery store in Bellevue, Washington. They stared up at plants arranged under bright lights, then turned to fill a bag with sugar snap peas.
Their curiosity was shared by many other customers as they took in the newest addition to the grocery store: a vertical farm.
Late last month, Kroger, which owns QFC, teamed up with Infarm, a six-year-old startup based in Germany, to install modular vertical farms in two of its Seattle-area grocery stores, in Bellevue and Kirkland, Washington. In these mini-farms, which use a hydroponic farming method, nine varieties of lettuce and herbs are stacked in rows and grown in nutrient-rich water until they are mature enough to be sold in bunches to customers, roots and all.
Unusually, these are small vertical farms inside grocery stores, rather than the larger-scale vertical farms that are more often found in warehouses. They’re reportedly the first examples of hydroponic farming within grocery stores in North America. Although Infarm has more than 500 such installations in stores and distribution centers in other parts of the world, this is its first partnership with a U.S. grocery store.
Kroger hopes to satisfy the American consumer’s increasing hunger for fresh, locally sourced, and nutrient-rich food. “Customers today want transparency; they want to know exactly where their product is from, the provenance where it was grown,” said Suzy Monford, Kroger Group’s group vice president of fresh foods.
Unveiled days before Thanksgiving, the program has already been deemed a success by Kroger. Monford said the stores have been selling everything from kale to cilantro as fast as the plants have been able to mature. In fact, on a couple of recent days, some varieties weren’t available because the crops needed time to replenish. The company has announced plans to expand vertical farming to 13 more QFCs in Washington and Oregon by April 2020.
The growing process at the two pilot stores involves LEDs and an irrigation system with recycled water, according to Kroger. Infarm uses a cloud-based technology system to remotely control the temperature and lighting for each of its farms.
Vertical farming uses much less water than soil-based agriculture and has significantly higher yields per acre. Because Infarm’s produce isn’t being shipped anywhere, that reduces carbon emissions from transportation. But given that transportation is a small part of farming’s environmental footprint and LEDs use electricity, the overall impact is hard to gauge.
It’s no surprise that the venture debuted in the Pacific Northwest, a region with an affinity for health and wellness and a strong interest in environmental issues. Kroger often looks to QFC for ecological innovation, Monford said, noting that it was the company’s first division to eliminate single-use plastic bags.
For Infarm, the ultimate goal is to make local food production mainstream. “For the bulk of the last century, food has been produced far from where it is consumed, generating a supply chain that is environmentally unsustainable,” said Osnat Michaeli, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “Our modular farms offer the potential of turning the supply chain on its head by building the world’s first global farming network.”
Inside the Kirkland and Bellevue QFCs, customers can find farm produce ready for purchase in front of the cases. Each lettuce or herb has been harvested from the unit and costs about the same as Kroger’s private-label organic produce. Freshness was a big motivator for Kroger deciding to incorporate the farms into its stores, said Monford: “There’s nothing that’s more fresh than something that’s still alive.”
When Seattle police began tear-gassing peaceful protesters on November 30, 1999, John Sellers was supposed to be in jail.
A day earlier, he had rappelled off a crane to hang a giant banner emblazoned with two one-way street signs. One was labeled “WTO” and the other “Democracy,” with their arrows pointing in opposite directions.
He was visiting Seattle that week as a member of the Ruckus Society, a Portland-based group specializing in high-profile “direct action” that calls attention to environmental and economic injustice. The focus of the group’s attention was the World Trade Organization, whose delegates were set to meet at the Washington State Convention Center to kick off global trade negotiations for the new millennium.
The delegates were met by an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 protesters who feared the ill effects of globalization—a coalition including environmentalists, labor unions, indigenous groups, international NGOs, and students. It was a nonviolent protest that blocked entrances to the convention center, but when the Seattle Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, a violent melee broke out downtown. Anarchist groups seized on the chaos to destroy cars and smash windows, causing an estimated $20 million in property damage and lost sales in the city.
The event became known as the Battle of Seattle, and while it was hardly the first activist effort to take on globalization, its scale and impact marked a defining moment in the evolution of activist tactics and law enforcement’s response. The mass street protests successfully shut down the WTO meeting and stalled trade talks that were criticized as detrimental to the developing world. An event that was supposed to mark Seattle’s arrival on the world stage instead became a cri de coeur for the global justice movement.
Sellers was arrested for his crane stunt, as he expected. What he didn’t expect was for police to release him, a protest organizer, on the eve of a major international event—one that was bringing President Bill Clinton to town. But the Ruckus Society had previously left a credit card with a bailbondswoman just in case, and much to his surprise, he was allowed to post bail.
“I couldn’t believe they let us out of jail the night before the WTO. They had us,” Sellers recounted last week at a 20th anniversary panel discussion in Seattle hosted by the Northwest news outlet Crosscut.
Out on bail, Sellers absorbed the fleeting carefree hours as tens of thousands of people thronged the streets before the violence on N30, as the last day of November became known in protest parlance. He watched as Teamsters square danced with environmentalists in sea turtle costumes, college students boogied down to late-’90s rave music, and Infernal Noise Brigade sparked a generation of radical marching bands.
“It was the best protest party I’ve ever been to,” Sellers said. Following relatively milquetoast social movements in the ’80s and early ’90s, Wood said the WTO protests marked a moment when organizers realized that “protest doesn’t have to be boring anymore.”
A street party was not what Washington Governor Gary Locke and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had in mind. Earlier that year, they were tickled when the White House had selected Seattle to host an event whose first two rounds had taken place in two alpha global cities, Singapore and Geneva. Washington state likes to tout itself as the most trade-dependent state in the nation and civic leaders thought Seattle was a poster child for free trade. “Choosing Seattle was a huge strategic error,” said Sellers, recalling the post-grunge city as a hotbed of political radicalism and a stronghold of the labor movement.
Releasing Sellers was just one of many errors the Seattle Police Department made during the event. They allowed the protesters to block intersections at the front door of the convention center, and then used heavy-handed riot police tactics to disperse them. Big-city police have since learned from the Seattle Police Department’s failures 20 years ago: It’s a big reason why protesters today are quarantined in “free speech zones” miles away from their targeted event.
If police learned from their counterparts in Seattle, protesters did too. The 1999 WTO protests loom large in the activist imagination. Tactics deployed in Seattle spread through nascent online listservs and message boards, leading to the global proliferation of now standard urban protest practices, including carnivalesque costumes and floats, on-site real-time media, and bodies-on-the-line direct action, as well as more controversial components like black bloc anarchists. While the black bloc tactic traces its roots to West Germany in the 1980s, the bandana-obscuring-the-face anarchist gained mainstream attention with media coverage of the WTO protests. Today the black bloc has resurged in antifa groups fighting the far right.
Conversely, activists can thank the global justice movement for pioneering the organization of simultaneous worldwide events. When this year’s Global Climate Strike in September saw some 4 million people in 4,500 cities and towns demand action to address the climate crisis, organizers were building on a legacy that began with solidarity protests in the late 1990s. According to Wood’s research, there were protests in 54 cities in June 1999 against the G8 meeting in Cologne; activists took to the streets in 97 cities in November 1999 against the WTO.
One of the more mundane but enduring aspects of the WTO protests was their democratic organizing techniques. “The Occupy movement and the Indiganados in Barcelona inherited a lot, from spokescouncils to general assemblies,” Wood says. To this day, the Movement for Black Lives and radical environmentalists continue to use spokescouncils to efficiently find consensus among large groups.
Central to the whole event, of course, were the issues of trade and globalization. Twenty years later, these issues play a leading role in national and geopolitical affairs, in ways that don’t break down neatly along traditional party lines and don’t seem to have a clear trajectory going forward. That wasn’t the case in 1999, Wood says: “Trade agreements were accelerating and there was a sense that the WTO was going to incorporate the whole planet” into a global trade deal.
But she credits the protests with empowering delegates from developing countries to walk away from a deal on agriculture that the U.S. and EU were foisting upon them. “The stakes were very high because at that point countries from the global south and NGOs felt like it was a done deal and there was no way to stop it,” she says.
Even if free trade remains a central issue in the political arena, today’s protest movements have become more insular than they were 20 years ago. Instead of targeting global institutions, there’s more focus on national issues. As a result, activists are arguably less connected today than they were in 1999. Rather than coordinating action through international networks, there’s a greater focus on sharing tactics. “Chileans apparently learned from Hong Kongers that you can use laser pointers to take down drones,” Wood says.
In Seattle, global solidarity hasn’t disappeared. On Black Friday, the eve of N30’s 20th anniversary, the Puget Sound Anarchists are calling for a one-day fare strike to protest the rising cost of living in Seattle. While public transit might seem like an odd target in “America’s bus-lovingest town,” the organizers cite the turnstile-jumping Chilean high school students as their inspiration. They also extol a list of recent social unrest, from France to Hong Kong to Ecuador to Haiti.
The world might be a different place two decades later—Seattle certainly is—but echoes of the WTO protests can be heard all over.
In the heart of downtown Seattle, just across the street from the Amazon Spheres (three spherical conservatories that are part of Amazon’s campus), a new state-of-the-art homeless shelter is almost complete. Its name is “Mary’s Place Family Center in The Regrade”; the plans are for it to fill eight floors and open in early 2020. The center is expected to be the largest family shelter in Washington State. But the facility stands apart from other shelters for another, more surprising reason. It is being built in an Amazon corporate building and funded by the tech giant.
The shelter is nearing completion at a critical time for both Seattle and Amazon. For years, city leaders have struggled with finding large-scale solutions to the homelessness crisis, and more immediately, with offering enough emergency and transitional shelter each night for everyone who needs it.
The Seattle/King County Point-in-Time Count (made during a annual tally of the number of unsheltered Americans living on the street in various location on a single night in January) found about 6,000 people sleeping in emergency and transitional housing. But there were still around 2,800 people sleeping outside or in a tent. The new facility will certainly offer more shelter for those in need, but it will specifically help to bring some of the most vulnerable members of the homeless population—families with children—inside.
Amazon has been under fire for several years in Seattle for what many contend is its role in fueling the homelessness crisis: Critics attribute Seattle’s rising cost of living and growing inequality, in part, to Amazon’s effect on the area. The trillion-dollar company is known for paying relatively little in income taxes, and last year, when the city council passed the “head tax,” a per-employee tax on large corporations, planning to use the proceeds for additional housing and services for the homeless, Amazon teamed up with other corporations and succeeded in getting it repealed. The corporation has also contributed an unprecedented $1.45 million to this year’s Seattle City Council election in an effort to support more business-friendly candidates.
In other words, as of late, Amazon hasn’t had very good public relations in Seattle. While she commended Amazon for working with Mary’s Place to build the family center, Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness said, “[A]t the same time in no way does such a contribution offset Amazon’s obligation to contribute to this community and this region through paying taxes that create well-being and lasting benefits well beyond 200 people.”
Eisinger believes that Amazon has a deep-rooted credibility problem in the community: “Not only are they remarkably willing to throw their financial might around in influencing local politics but they’re contributing to the boom and they’re not doing what they and all other major corporations really have to be required to do, which is to contribute a portion of their profits through taxes back to the common good.”
The seeds of Amazon’s project with the nonprofit organization Mary’s Place, were sown about four years ago when Seattle’s homeless crisis reached such concerning levels that then-Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency. Mary’s Place had become adept at opening shelters in underutilized buildings slated for demolition, offering people in the community a temporary place to stay and then moving on to a new location once the owners were ready to build. When Amazon purchased an old, two-story hotel that would be vacant prior to construction, the company offered the space to the nonprofit on a temporary basis. Months later, when it bought another hotel across the street, it did the same thing.
Before long, said Mary’s Place executive director, Marty Hartman, they started developing a relationship with Amazon.But, she said, it was still a surprise when in the summer of 2017, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, John Schoettler, let Hartman know of the company’s decision by presenting her with an Amazon shipping box containing a golden key (strategically captured on video by a Amazon team).Hartman said that Amazon offered Mary’s Place half of one of the new office buildings it would be starting construction on in the fall.
“It was a shock; I think I was just in tears,” said Hartman. “I felt an overwhelming sense of love and deep gratitude that they loved our families so much that they wanted to make sure that they could bring them all in.”
Mary’s Place will run the facility, which will be open 24/7 and, with over 63,000 square feet of usable space, able to house at least 275 people each night. (On extreme weather nights, there will be 75 mats available for any additional families that need a warm place to sleep.) The shelter is specifically for families, which covers a range of family constructions.As Hartman described it: “Whatever your family looks like outside, we want to make sure we can serve you inside.” Children in particular are very vulnerable outside, and when they experience trauma at a very young age, it can have life-changing effects, Hartman said. “It’s critically important for us to make sure that children’s needs are met, that they know that they have a stable place to go, that they have a bed, that they have food, that they have a bathroom.”
Four of the centers floors will be filled with individual rooms for families, with 30 rooms specifically designated for those with children who have life-threatening illnesses. There will also be a large dining space with an industrial kitchen; health and legal clinics; and a large playground. With expansive windows covering its hallways and panoramic views of the city’s corporate nerve center, it’s clear this will be far from the typical homeless shelter.
Amazon has said that in addition to providing space, it will cover utilities, maintenance, and security. “The shelter is for Mary’s Place to use (with our support) as long as they need it,” said Amazon spokeswoman Stacey Keller in an emailed statement.Altogether, the company has agreed to contribute more than $100 million to Mary’s Place over the next decade.
Eisinger said, it’s important to remember that this shelter, like all shelters, will not operate in a vacuum: “On any given night, those families need healthcare providers, those families need schools, those families need childcare systems, those families need mental health providers and employers and job trainers, and those things don’t come about because of charitable contributions. Those things come about because of government investments, and the government is funded by taxes.”
Amazon will not be covering all costs associated with the facility. Mary’s Place will still be responsible for programming, staffing, and operations costs. The organization estimated these will cost about $2 million a year.
Hartman said in addition to simply providing shelter, the facility will also offer early childhood learning, homework space for school-aged children, music and coding classes, and extensive help to get families into permanent housing. The shelter’s central location will be an added benefit, as it could make residents’ commute to work or school simpler, and the facility will act as a hub for volunteers, Hartman said. Amazon’s legal team is already slated to offer pro bono legal support at the shelter.
But the fact that it is in the middle of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters could also help to break down barriers, Eisinger believes. “It has the potential to really drive home the message that there is no they and us, that we are all in this together,” she said. “I think that’s actually potentially one of the most significant pieces of this project.”