In the wake of a pandemic that highlighted food insecurity across the state and country, Jersey City will be the first in the nation to launch a municipal vertical farming program.
The program, in conjunction with Newark-based AeroFarms and the World Economic Forum, which recently selected Jersey City as its first partner in the Healthy Cities and Communities 2030 Initiatives, will grow an estimated 19,000 pounds of vegetables annually and will be free to the public.
The only stipulation? Residents must participate in healthy eating workshops and agree to quarterly health screenings.
“This is not just about giving away healthy food, it’s about changing people’s habits, to have a healthier diet and better outcomes, and a better life. COVID-19 has certainly brought to light that certain communities are more vulnerable because they have [higher incidence of] diabetes and diet-related ailments,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, whose personal commitment to health and wellness has had him compete in one full Ironman Competition and two half-competitions. “We think dealing with food deserts and helping people make smart choices around diet can have a meaningful outcome in their life, so we want to have meaningful progress instead of just distributing vegetables.”
The pandemic’s effect on Jersey City includes more than 6,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 400 fatalities to date, with a disproportionate impact on the city’s lower-income areas. It also exacerbated an existing food access issue: hunger relief organization Feeding America estimated in April that 37 million Americans face hunger, and that an additional 17.1 million could face hunger in the next six months due to school closures, rising unemployment and other effects from the outbreak.
The vertical farming program will consist of 10 vertical farms throughout the city’s senior centers, schools, public housing complexes, and municipal buildings.
The Fulop administration initially introduced the idea of a municipal vertical farming initiative in last year’s capital plan, after several other healthy eating initiatives in the last couple of years. Seniors have been taken on supermarket tours to demonstrate how to stretch a dollar in a healthy way and the citywide Healthy Corner Store Initiative has provided grants to bodegas to redo their food displays in high traffic areas, switching from chocolate to clementines and Pringles to plantains.
Fulop said he hopes to have several thousand people in vertical farm program, participating in monitoring, education and, of course, eating healthy.
“You can extend someone’s life expectancy with small changes in their lifestyle. It’s certainly timely with the conversation that’s going on now in terms of investing in more resources in health education, and it seems to make a lot of sense with that conversation, COVID and post-COVID,” Fulop said.
Valued at $1 million, the Jersey City project is small potatoes for AeroFarms—the company builds projects in the double-digit millions, and the Newark facility is worth $40 million. But Chief Executive Officer David Rosenberg said that by no means diminishes the importance of the job.
“The real problem we want to solve is, how do you get people from lower socioeconomic demographics to eat healthy food? Food stamps help get food on the table, but if people drink Pepsi and Coke and eat Doritos, it’s not achieving the goal of getting people to eat healthy,” Rosenberg said.
The goal is more easily met when target populations are involved in growth of the food, he explained.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama seemed to agree when she visited a rooftop farm AeroFarms runs at Phillips Academy Charter School, 3 miles from its Newark headquarters. The details for Jersey City’s 10 municipal vertical farms, regarding how involved community members will be ingrowing and harvesting, haven’t been ironed out yet.
“While [AeroFarms] is an unconventional farm, the idea that people can be part of growing—they can be part of a farm, and if people can interact with the food growing, there might be another degree of excitement, engagement, exploration,” Rosenberg said.
The city’s Health and Human Service Department, directed by Stacey Flanagan, will run the health-monitoring component of the program, focused on tracking the blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and obesity of participants as they consume a greener diet.
Crops will also be integrated with other Healthy Food Access initiatives in the city, including senior meal programs.
With access to more food comes more opportunity to waste that food—roughly 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. ends up tossed in the garbage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—but Rosenberg explained how programs like the upcoming municipal farms can actually combat food waste.
“A lot of food waste occurs because of spoilage. There’s typically a 12-day shelf life [on leafy greens]and it takes half that time to get to the supermarket. Then it takes another couple of days before people eat it, and then the greens get slimy, and people throw it away,” he said. “Just by taking off a bunch of those days because its fresh and local, there’s going to be a longer life of the product, and people have more time to eat it.”v