Healthy Living Takes Root in Newark at the Beth Greenhouse

A hydroponic garden -- which uses water rather than soil to deliver nutrients to plants -- should help wash away even more of Newark’s food desert

The health benefits of fresh vegetables are well known. The process of creating a garden where residents can join hands to teach one another how to raise crops provides countless additional social and economic advantages to the surrounding community. These gains become even more important in a neighborhood that has traditionally lacked access to healthy food, safe community spaces, and job opportunities.

Many parts of Newark are just such a food desert. The lack of resources in New Jersey’s largest city caused leaders at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center to start an urban garden and farm market, a project that has flourished over the past five years to become a key part of the hospital’s larger Wellness Program.

On Tuesday the hospital, a part of the RWJ/Barnabas Health network, is scheduled to host a grand opening of a hydroponic greenhouse, the latest addition to the program. The facility uses nutrient-infused water to grow plants, and follows a commercial aeroponic greenhouse, which uses just mist, that opened last spring in the Ironbound. Hospital officials said the Beth Greenhouse will double the output available through the existing garden, allow food production all year, and serve as a local base for horticultural and other job-training and employment efforts.

The project, which Barnabas said is the only one of its kind nationwide, will host programs for disabled residents, veterans, and former prisoners. It will also allow them to expand on work done at the current garden, which has led to cooking classes for hospital outpatients, and become a critical part of the community fabric, they said.

The greenhouse and garden projects are also part of a larger trend toward wellness in general. Government programs like Medicaid and Medicare and private health insurance companies are shifting toward payment models that reward doctors for their quality of care, instead of the quantity of visits or treatments they provide. And there has been a growing understanding in recent years of the need to also focus on keeping people healthy, instead of just treating them after they become sick.

“These kinds of things are really avant garde. People still come to the hospital when they are sick,” explained Barbara Mintz, the RWJ/Barnabas vice president who oversees community engagement and healthy-living efforts, like the Wellness Program. “Hospitals need to be a place of wellness. This is a real culture change.”

Mintz said this work is particularly important in a city like Newark, where many residents battle health issues like obesity and high blood pressure; these conditions can benefit from a diet full of fresh vegetables. According to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Jersey scored – both state-wide and in low-income areas – two points below the national average on a 10-point scale designed to measure residents’ access to fresh, healthy food versus the availability of fast food restaurants and convenience stores in their communities.

In Newark, the Barnabas wellness projects have grown organically since 2011, Mintz explained. A few earth-boxes with plantings along Lyons Avenue led to more boxes and new crops, like okra and African kale, chosen by local residents. A farmers market came next, with produce available at affordable prices, and eventually farming, nutrition, and cooking classes.

“In Newark you can tell somebody that they should eat healthy food, but then they go down the street to the corner store and all they have is Doritos and soda,” Mintz said. “We figured if we’re going to talk about this we had to teach these skills and actually walk the walk.”

The success of the Beth Garden led Barnabas to develop a larger, enclosed structure that could help the team double production from 5,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds of produce harvested annually. The hospital hired Lorainne Gibbons, who leads Garden State Urban Farms, which has developed a number of hydroponic gardens in several cities in Essex and Sussex counties.

Gibbons helped the team transform what was a trash-strewn lot at the corner of Osborne Terrace and Lehigh Avenue, across from the hospital. After addressing some engineering challenges created by the sloping terrain, the team built the hydroponic greenhouse – where the plants are fed through a water system, without soil.

The structure, completed in late January, measures 72 feet by 26 feet – enough to produce the equivalent of a five-acre farm, said Mintz. “We’re trying to take care of people before they get to the hospital,” she said. “And it’s a simple way to pull a very diverse community together.”