Jersey City is set to launch a vertical farming program that will bring 19,000 pounds of fresh produce to residents every year — free of charge — transforming areas of the city that traditionally lack healthy food sources.
Mayor Steve Fulop announced a partnership with AeroFarms, a New Jersey vertical farming company, and the World Economic Forum, that will make Jersey City the first in the nation to create a municipal vertical farming program. The initiative will establish 10 farming sites throughout the city.
Fulop said the program will help reshape the diets of people living in areas with higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure — some of the same health conditions that have left many susceptible to COVID-19.
“It is going to be oriented towards diet, healthy eating and making people more aware of what they are putting into their body,” Fulop said. “We are going to be hopefully changing outcomes of how people eat and live which ultimately changes life expectancy.”
Residents will register with the city and may be required to participate in health food workshops, as well as quarterly health screenings to receive free access to the locally-grown produce.
The program comes as the city grapples with a $70 million budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus. But as one of the cities hit hardest by COVID-19 — Jersey City is nearing 6,500 positive cases and 500 fatalities — “we feel it is more important than ever to focus on food access and education,” Fulop said.
The City Council will vote Wednesday on a resolution granting a three-year contract with AeroFarms, which grows primarily leafy greens, including spinach, for nearly $1 million. A little more than half of the money will fund the construction of the vertical farm units and the rest of the money will cover maintenance of the project.
“Society’s structural food problems have become more clear with COVID-19,” said AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg, whose company also operates a 70,000-square-foot vertical farm in Newark. “The world needs more distributed, localized food production systems.
“We also need new ways to get healthy food to our most disadvantaged members of society.”
The farming sites will be located in: the City Hall lobby, the 1 Jackson Square lobby, Joseph Connors Senior Center, Maureen Collier Senior Center, Marion Gardens Housing Complex, Berry Gardens Housing Complex, Mary McLeod Bethune Center and three public schools that have yet to be determined.
AeroFarms’ patented growth method uses neither sun nor soil. Crops are misted with a solution of nutrients, water and oxygen, and are housed in mobile modules that can be stacked multiple stories high.
AeroFarms uses 95 percent less water than traditional farming. In lieu of sunlight, energy-efficient LED lights supply the exact spectrum, intensity, and frequency that each individual plant needs for photosynthesis.
The farming units will take six weeks to install and then two weeks to begin producing vegetables. Residents who sign up for the program will have immediate access to the farms, the city’s Health and Human Services Director Stacey Flanagan said.
Flanagan’s office will coordinate quarterly screenings with Quest Diagnostics to track participants’ progress under a greener diet. The crops will also be integrated into other healthy eating initiatives, including senior meal programs.
In the quarterly screenings, residents will have their weight, height, cholesterol and vitamin D levels checked. Residents can come in and out of the program as they please, Flanagan said.
“We know diet is a key predictor of life expectancy and the coronavirus has made clear the huge inequities on food access and food education that exists in different communities,” Flanagan said.
The program is part of a broader initiative from the World Economic Forum. Earlier this year the organization selected Moscow, Mumbai, Austin, Texas, and Jersey City to launch the Healthy City 2030 initiative, which will target measurable changes to the health of each community.
“This partnership will allow us to provide thousands of pounds of locally-grown, nutritious foods that will help close the hunger gap and have an immeasurable impact on the overall health of our community,” Fulop said.
“The goal is to see how if we invest more dollars in education and direct access into healthy eating how that changes people’s food consumption and ultimately their health.”