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How one health care system is going green

With the Beth Greenhouse, RWJBarnabas can bring healthy food to residents of Newark's food desert

Barry Ostrowsky, right, CEO and president, RWJBarnabas, and Newark Beth Israel CEO Darrell Terry, center, held a ribbon-cutting for the new Beth Greenhouse.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

Two health care CEOs are going back to their roots.

RWJBarnabas Health CEO Barry Ostrowsky and Newark Beth Israel CEO Darrell Terry held a ribbon-cutting for the new Beth Greenhouse, which they believe will stop the cycle of poor health in the food desert that is Newark.

The new 72-by-26-foot greenhouse, on Lyons Avenue and Osborne Terrace, is essentially an urban farm that will support a farmers market at the hospital.

The idea sprouted five years ago, when Barbara Mintz, a dietitian by training, pitched the idea of a farmers market.

What started as a small project bloomed into 5,000 pounds of produce from earth boxes kept in an empty lot that summer, said Mintz, vice president of healthy living and community engagement.

She added that the production from the greenhouse is equivalent to five acres of farmland.

It is a project near and dear to the hearts of both Ostrowsky, who spent his childhood in that very neighborhood, and to Terry, who still has family in the area.

Ostrowsky went to school just down the street from the greenhouse when he was 4 years old.

So did his wife, he said, but neither met until they were in their 20s.

“I’m dying to find if there is any ledger that says we were there at the same time,” Ostrowsky said.

“This is very meaningful for me, because the beginnings of my life were on Shepherd Avenue between Osborne Terrace and Bergen Street. I would walk this way to go to Maple Avenue School. When I was in the 5th grade, I was a safety patrol on this very corner.”

Terry shared his childhood memories of growing up in the area without access to fresh foods.

“I faced the same issue,” he said. “My mom had four boys — she didn’t drive, so in order for us to get healthy food, we had to get on buses and go places to get it because places like this (greenhouse) did not exist even then.

“For people to have that choice today and have access to that choice … it’s one thing to talk about it, but really to put our money where our mouth is, that’s what makes me feel good about this. We have created an opportunity today for kids to get healthy fruits and vegetables, as opposed to the potato chips and sodas in bodegas.”

And healthier people means fewer sick in the hospital.

“I want to work myself out of a job,” Terry said. “I really do. It’s not good enough to treat episodic illness anymore, it’s really about keeping our communities healthy.

“I‘m really tired of looking at the metrics of health in Newark and the greater Newark area and seeing us at the bottom of the list. It’s time for us to do something different.”

While the health system doesn’t expect the endeavor to turn a profit, it potentially could be a new revenue stream.

Profits, Ostrowsky said, are not the point of this project.

“We are not expecting it to be self-sufficient, so whatever it needs, the system will come up with that subsidy,” he said. “This isn’t about an investment with a return any time soon, not in any financial ways. It’s going to have a return in community benefit.”

Mintz said that when she first pitched the idea, the best part was that nobody said no. And no budget was initially set to bring the dream to life.

“Health care is changing,” she said. “It’s becoming more of a wellness model rather than a sick model.

“Here there’s no money, no access and no education because that’s what they are surrounded with.”

Ostrowsky agreed.

“What we know about this community and the city in general, is it’s a food desert,” he said. “Folks don’t have access to fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. So, this is going to fill that void.”

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On Twitter: @anjkhem

Anjalee Khemlani

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