Charity grows food for homeless in a Belltown basement

SEATTLE - The Emerald City has goats, chickens and all kinds of urban farming going on - and now a nonprofit that feeds the homeless is jumping on the bandwagon.

It's happening at the Millionair Club in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood.

Club members serve more than 90,000 meals a year to the homeless and now, instead of buying fresh produce, they're growing it right in their basement.

In fact, the 250-square-foot room they're using for this project looks more like a sci-fi movie set than a homeless shelter with work and meals programs.

But this is science - hydroponics, or growing plants without soil.

Chris Bajuk said, "The whole idea is to grow food right here in the city, proximate to where people live and work, rather than 1,500 miles away."

Bajuk founded Urban Harvest and now he's partnered with the Millionair Club, building a hydroponics system for them to harvest some 20,000 bowls of salad a year.

"It's about 20 times more productive than equivalent agriculture soil, given the space," Bajuk said.

The space they're using for this big hydroponics project is small - and the budget just as tiny. Bajuk has been hauling in lumber, ordering tubs and pools, building risers, drilling holes in food grade pipes and literally building this entire operation from the ground up, for months now.

Bajuk explained that hydroponics is not new technology, but the individual components he's using are rather new. The most expensive pieces of the puzzle are the grow lights.

Bajuk explained that they secured their lights with the help of a rebate program from Seattle City Light.

"The plants react to different spectrums of light, so there's the red, the white and the blue," Bajuk said.

And, he added, these special lights eliminate viruses and other bacteria from the water, to keep the entire system clean.

When in full grow mode, Bajuk says they expect to harvest 800 plants a month.

What they don't use to feed the homeless upstairs, they'll sell to restaurants and urban grocers to further their mission of changing lives, one job at a time.

Last year the Millionair Club Charity provided day laborers to more than 2,000 homeowners and businesses. The program put more than 400 people to work instead of walking the streets and the shelter provided more than 29,000 beds for homeless men to sleep in.

The new hydroponics program will also help train some workers for urban farming jobs.