Hospital greenhouse grows healthy food for community

Tiny peppers, with leaves waving proudly, may not hold a whole lot of meaning for the average New Jersey backyard gardener. But in the South Ward of Newark, inside less than 2,000 square feet of space, this greenhouse is changing the way of life for a community.

“You can’t teach people how to eat if you don’t have the food to provide to them. So, down in an urban environment like Newark, or what they consider a food desert, there is a lot of food insecurity. So this is a way to tie everything together and connect it with your health and wellness,” said Barbara Mintz, senior vice-president for healthy living and community engagement at RWJ Barnabas Health.

The Beth Greenhouse, located just next door to Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, pumps out more than 10,000 pounds of food a year. Employees teach nutrition education, farming and cooking. It’s got all the staples, including kale, zucchini, tomatoes and basil. But in a unique format, the hospital sells it right in the outpatient lobby once a week.

“We harvest it every week and we bring it into our farmers market, which is in the lobby of our hospital, every Thursday,” said Mintz. “We sell it not only to the employees, but to the community as well, patient families, visitors and so on.”

The greenhouse distributes about 100 pounds of food a week. Because they use hydroponic farming, the crops grow at least 20 percent faster than those traditionally grown. That’s because they receive the exact right amount of oxygen, water and nutrients.

“What’s important to us is not sitting back waiting for people to get sick and come into our emergency department. We are concerned about prevention, wellness and really creating a healthier Newark,” said President and CEO of Newark Beth Israel Medial Center Darrell Terry Sr.

The hospital announced a new partnership with the State Department of Human Services hoping to find more ways to get healthy food options to the public.

“We’re the first hospital in New Jersey that allows for SNAP recipients to shop and have access to our fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Terry.

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Eligible residents can use their benefits card to buy healthy produce at any enrolled farmers market or grocery store. Now, that includes the hospital.

“In New Jersey, we have 394,000 household that receive SNAP benefits in our state. And specifically to Essex County, we have about 55,000 households, so it’s a pretty large number. We have a lot of families across the state that are utilizing our benefit program,” said the Director of the Division of Family Development Natasha Johnson.

“We see a lot of expansion of farmers that are actually taking the SNAP benefit, so I think that is indicative of the fact that people are coming to their farm markets and saying, ‘I have SNAP, can I use it here?’ And really wanting to avail themselves of the fresh produce that’s produced in our whole state,” said Acting Commissioner of the Department of Human Services Elizabeth Connolly.

And with the use of SNAP sales in full swing, the hospital says crops are growing and word is spreading.