An Ambitious Urban Farming Program Aims to Tackle Hunger. Residents Aren’t Sure They Buy In.

Rachael Fox moved to the McGinley Square neighborhood of Jersey City seven years ago after being priced out of New York City. She has Lyme disease, which limits her ability to work, so she is entirely reliant on SNAP (which amounts to less than $200 per month) and disability benefits for her income. Last year, she got an electric scooter, which has made food shopping easier. In the past, she had to walk a quarter of a mile to visit the grocery store, only to sift through rotting produce, or plan her budget around a once monthly trip to Shop Rite, which required the cost of a cab one or both ways.

“If you’re like me, and you’re on food stamps or you’re low income, a lot of the way that you survive is, you have to know which stores to go to and what to buy where, and that option has now been taken away in the era of COVID. Anything that could help and provide food would be a huge boon,” Fox says.

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Jersey City’s poverty rate is 18 percent — that’s more than 47,000 people out of a population of around 265,549 (by comparison, the national average hovers at around 10.4 percent). About 32 percent of those living below the poverty line — around 14,751 people — are African American; another 17,000 people who identify as Hispanic live in poverty.

Google Maps’ distribution of grocery stores throughout Jersey City shows at least 160 places to buy food, many of which are concentrated around the busy, densely populated Journal Square, McGinley Square, and West Side neighborhoods. In areas like South Jersey City’s Greenville, where 53 percent of the population is African American, and Bergen-Lafayette, where that number jumps to 62 percent, the choices thin out considerably, especially if you don’t have access to a car.

That startling lack of food access was the impetus for a new initiative: In partnership with AeroFarms and the World Economic Forum, 10 vertical farms located in senior centers, schools, public housing complexes, and municipal buildings were slated to begin opening at the end of 2020. The pandemic slowed the project’s progress, but Stacey Flanagan, head of the Jersey City department of health and human services, still expects “the first two farms to be ready by the end of [March 2021].”

The farms will grow 19,000 pounds of leafy greens such as kale and arugula annually. Flanagan says the program’s initial rollout focuses on providing nutrient-dense greens to residents, with a wider variety of produce in the future.

The greens will be distributed to the public for free — all that’s required is that the participants register for the program. The three-year contract with AeroFarms will cost Jersey City $1 million — half of the money will go toward building the farms, while the other half will be dedicated to maintenance once the farms open.

On the surface, the program seems like it will be an asset to a city plagued by food inequality issues. Fox tells me that, as a high-risk person during the pandemic, she’s shopping at outdoor farmers markets much more often, despite the expense. She feels that any produce that would supplement her SNAP benefits would be a blessing — especially if the city could find a way to deliver her allotment.

Still, some Jersey City residents are skeptical.

There was immediate backlash to the implication in initial press releases announcing the initiative that participants would be required to take nutritional classes or even attend health screenings. That raised immediate concerns about participant privacy, as well as concerns that it could be condescending to users.

“If there’s a signup table with one person sitting in the corner saying, get a health screening here, that could benefit people who maybe don’t have the ability, or don’t have the time to go to a doctor, but we need to understand how the city is going to use [that data] and where that data is going to be stored and, and how it might potentially be shared,” says Leslie, a Jersey City resident of 13 years  who asked that her last name not be used.

Still, some Jersey City residents are skeptical.

Flanagan told me that residents will not be required to participate in any outside programs in exchange for their allotment of free produce. Instead, there might be what she calls a “point of education,” at the pick-up location, where participants might receive a recipe for a smoothie along with their produce, or an offer to check their cholesterol, through the city’s partnership with Quest Diagnostics. She added that every aspect of the program involving data collection will be conducted by a “city or medical professional,” and that it will be kept “completely confidential as per HIPPA laws.”

Tatiana Smith, a single mother, doula, and founder of the Westside Community Fridge, says she has to travel to other parts of the city for food but she’s still decidedly unenthusiastic about the vertical farming program. She says that the city should drop the education portion altogether, because it feels disconnected from the needs of many low-income communities.

“What would be engaging is to take a community member and have them come in and talk about a recipe from their culture and pass it on. But not to give out random recipes. People already know how to cook,” she says. In fact, nearby community gardens all over New Jersey and New York frequently host community potlucks —  some specifically aimed at the neighborhood’s international community —  in which residents are invited to share a favorite dish, meet each other, exchange recipes, seeds, and vegetables, and ultimately build bonds of closeness between neighbors.

Smith is still undecided if she’ll be signing up for the program herself. If she does, she says she’d ask city officials why they never consulted directly with community members about whether or not they even wanted a program like this.

“It’s typical of these types of initiatives that want to help but don’t bother to tap in into what the community is doing and how they live,” she says. “There is this idea that black and brown people seem to not care about their health, but black people have had a long history of food justice work, and now [the city is] saying, ‘We’re gonna introduce healthy eating to you.’ We’ve been eating like this for a long time, but because of systematic racism, low income people have had to resort to poor quality food.”

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