The health benefits of fresh vegetables are well known. The process of creating a garden where residents can band together to teach each other how to grow plants provides myriad additional social and economic benefits to the surrounding community. Those gains are even more important in a neighborhood that traditionally has no access to healthy food, safe communal spaces, and job opportunities.
Many parts of Newark are such a food wasteland. The lack of resources in New Jersey’s largest city prompted officials at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center to open a municipal garden and farmers market. This project has become an important part of the hospital’s larger wellness program over the past five years.
The opening of a hydroponic greenhouse, the latest addition to the program, is scheduled to take place on Tuesday at the hospital, which is part of the RWJ / Barnabas Health network. The facility uses nutrient-rich water to grow plants and follows a commercial aeroponic greenhouse using only fog that opened on Ironbound last spring. Hospital officials said the Beth greenhouse will double the power available in the existing garden, enable year-round food production, and serve as a local base for horticultural and other professional training and employment efforts.
The project, which Barnabas said is the only one of its kind in the country, will host programs for disabled residents, veterans and former prisoners. It will also allow them to expand the work in the current garden, which has resulted in cooking classes for hospital outpatients, and become an important part of the community fabric, they said.
The greenhouse and garden projects are also part of a larger trend towards wellbeing in general. Government programs like Medicaid and Medicare, as well as private health insurers, are shifting towards payment models that reward doctors for the quality of care rather than the number of visits or treatments they offer. In recent years, there has been a growing understanding that one must also focus on maintaining people’s health rather than just treating them after they become sick.
“Things like that are really avant-garde. People still come to the hospital when they are sick, ”said Barbara Mintz, RWJ / Barnabas vice president who oversees community engagement and healthy living efforts like the wellness program. “Hospitals have to be a place of wellbeing. This is a real culture change. ”
Mintz said this work is especially important in a city like Newark, where many residents are battling health problems like obesity and high blood pressure. These conditions can benefit from a diet full of fresh vegetables. According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Jersey scored on a 10-point scale of residents’ access to fresh, healthy food versus the availability of fast food restaurants and convenience stores -Stores in their communities.
In Newark, Barnabas wellness projects have grown organically since 2011, Mintz said. A couple of earth boxes with plantings along Lyons Avenue resulted in more boxes and new crops such as okra and African kale being selected by the locals. Next up was a farmers market with products at affordable prices and finally farming, nutrition and cooking classes.
“In Newark, you can tell someone to have a healthy diet, but then they go down the street to the corner store and only have Doritos and soda,” Mintz said. “We thought if we want to talk about it we have to teach those skills and actually go the way.”
The success of the Beth Garden prompted Barnabas to develop a larger, enclosed structure that could help the team double production from £ 5,000 to £ 10,000 of products harvested annually. The hospital hired Lorainne Gibbons, who runs Garden State Urban Farms and has created a number of hydroponic gardens in several towns in Essex and Sussex.
Gibbons helped the team remodel a littered lot on the corner of Osborne Terrace and Lehigh Avenue across from the hospital. After overcoming some engineering challenges created by the sloping terrain, the team built the hydroponic greenhouse, which uses a soil-free water system to feed the plants.
The structure, which was completed in late January, measures 72 feet by 26 feet – enough to produce the equivalent of a five-acre farm, Mintz said. “We try to take care of people before they go to the hospital,” she said. “And it’s an easy way to bring a very diverse community together.”