Initiate a holistic and interconnected Food Hub network in the city of Newark, NJ in order to combat the growing problem of food insecurity.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Our group is composed of three graduate students of the Rutgers - the State University of New Jersey. As Business and Sustainability Graduate Students, our research has been focused on approaching the growing global problem of food deserts through an integrated "Food-Hub" approach. As residents of New Jersey, we have taken a concerted research interest in the feasibility of implementing local and regional food hubs throughout the state.
In addition to being the largest city in the state, Newark is a place of cultural and community significance to all members of the team. Our demographic backgrounds mirror that of the city and we have become emotionally and academically invested to the problems facing the city.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Evidence of our culturally diverse city
The City of Newark is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities within the state of New Jersey. This includes large populations of Portuguese and Brazilian residents, in addition to people of various West African, Caribbean, and Hispanic descent. These people groups have brought to Newark the many types of cuisines culturally significant to their households. Small restaurants can be found serving these traditional dishes; however, proper grocery stores are absent for many neighborhoods. This results in much food shopping for the home occurring at small corner store bodegas which often lack any quality fresh produce.
Almost 30% of the population of Newark live below the Federal poverty level while a significant amount or residents live only slightly above it. The general health of the people who live here is also worse than New Jersey as a whole as nearly 40% of adults are obese, have high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Additionally, the rate of diabetes in Newark is roughly 80% higher than the percentage of adults throughout the state. 
Situated 10 miles west of Manhattan, Newark is shaped like a large bowl with the elevation starting at sea level in the east along the Passaic River and at Port Newark and rising to a maximum height of 70 meters above sea level in the western portion of the city. The municipality has 4 distinct seasons with winters typically being cold and damp and summers often being hot and humid. The city is divided into 5 political wards, which each contain several distinct neighborhoods. Essex county, which Newark is the seat of, is almost entirely urban. There is only one traditional farm left in the entire county. Agriculture, however, has begun to play an important roll within the city itself in the form of community gardens and small farms giving new life to vacant lots through the city’s Adopt-a-Lot program. Furthermore, one of the world’s largest indoor vertical farms, Aerofarms, is located in a former steel mill in the East Ward.
While it has seen some revitalization in recent years, there is still much to be done to make Newark a better place to live for those who call it home. Much of the city is a designated Urban Enterprise Zone and initiatives are being put forth to not only keep and increase the major employers in the city, but also make sure that local residents can be employed. Newark is one of the most important cities in, not only New Jersey, but the country as a whole due to its major port and transportation hubs. There is a growing hope that the city will be able to overcome its current adversity while improving the lives of its citizens and avoid the rapid gentrification seen in nearby Hoboken, Jersey City, and Brooklyn.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The city of Newark is currently facing a crisis in terms of residents’ health. A staggering proportion of Newark’s population is obese with nearly 40% falling into this classification. These obese residents are at an increased risk of developing a myriad of health conditions including diabetes and heart disease. Another major health concern in the city of Newark is air quality. High levels of pollutants and contaminants in the air have led to increased numbers of residents with asthma and other respiratory issues. This is especially a problem for at risk age groups, such as children and the elderly. Considering the fact that in 2014 nearly 30% of Newark residents were uninsured, these issues become not only debilitating problems for individuals, but for the community as a whole. In line with this challenge is the high level of poverty in this region. In 2015, 30% of Newark residents were living under the poverty line. In the same year nearly 40% of children under the age of 18 were poverty stricken which was exponentially higher than the statewide 15%.
Being categorized as a food desert, Newark currently lacks accessible food systems for residents. The majority of the available food sources are heavily processed and lack integral nutritional components for healthy development and maintenance. As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, issues relating to food waste and food miles are also key challenges to address. In the US, up to 40% of food produced can end up being wasted. Importing food from another state or country, when it can be grown and sourced locally, leads to unnecessary emissions and pollution as a result of transportation. Without immediate action these problems facing Newark in 2020 will only continue to worsen. Due to its geographical location, the impacts of climate change will make living conditions in this city higher risk as time goes on. By 2050, these challenges will continue to grow leaving residents with little chance for success.
Currently policy conditions within Newark are favorable which make implementing an initiative such as this more feasible. The challenge will be making sure that once implemented these conditions don’t change course. Additionally, this project is meant to serve the communities in which it is located. Having the support of the local residents and creating a facility which best suits their needs is essential.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
When addressing the aforementioned challenges, a systemic approach is the only way to make lasting progress. This includes extensive communication with city residents and maintaining the cooperation of the city government. These strong relationships are vital to the success of the project. Food hubs are the key to improving the health and well-being of Newark residents and their environment at the same time. A network of food hubs can provide solutions to these challenges in many ways. First, they create a more efficient, sustainable supply chain of fresh food. Having access to nutritionally dense, locally sourced food will give residents healthier options they can incorporate in their daily lives. They will have the ability to make better choices for themselves and their families at meal times, which will lead to increased physical and mental well-being. Sourcing locally grown produce also results in less emissions from transportation. This in turn leads to improved air quality and better breathing conditions for community members. A local, transparent supply chain will also help to ensure supply does not exceed local demand. This limits the overall waste of product, while increasing profit potential. Having a localized market will invigorate the economy by growing residents’ interest and knowledge regarding local buying practices and increase their purchasing power. Furthermore, unsold and “ugly” produce can be distributed to various entities, like prisons or charitable organizations where nutrition is valued more highly than aesthetics. Lastly, due to the relationship with local farmers, any produce unfit for human consumption can be brought back to the farms to improve soil quality or become feed for livestock further improving the state of agricultural operations in New Jersey.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Creating a network of food hubs throughout the city of Newark would improve the lives of each and every member of the community for years to come. The fact that the proposed food hub initiative would combat the looming issue of food insecurity in the area is just the beginning of the positive impact it would have on the community. If implemented, this program would give Newark residents a meeting ground to connect with friends and neighbors to share not only healthy food, but insight into their unique cultures and traditions. Local food hubs would act as a stage in which people of all ages could showcase their personalities and talents. They would be far more than simply markets to purchase locally sourced healthy goods. They would be a catalyst toward increased community pride, togetherness, as well as overall health and well-being. These hubs would give residents of all ages an outlet to grow as individuals and become more connected with the natural world around them. The community centered hubs would give people a place to explore entrepreneurial endeavors in a supportive, safe environment. Residents would have the opportunity to pursue new means of income and career opportunities while invigorating the local economy in a sustainable and responsible manner. Having a network of food hubs throughout the five wards of Newark would open up countless doors for children and adults alike. These culturally unique, yet connected hubs would act as the heart of each ward; a place where people would congregate and make steps toward healthier choices for present and future generations. A community food hub initiative would foster an environment that facilitates kinship and pride and leads Newark toward a greener future.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Hawthorne Avenue Farm - one of the growing Urban Agriculture Community Organizations
Food accessibility and insecurity have emerged as significant national public health priorities. The lack of access to healthy food - predominantly in areas deemed “food deserts” - is recognized as a key factor contributing to nutritional disparities and obesity.
The Garden State of New Jersey is saturated with over 134 USDA designated food desert areas. “Food deserts” can be defined as geographic areas where access to healthy and affordable food options are limited, restricted, or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within suitable travelling distances” (USDA, 2014). The nearly 400,000 New Jersey residents who live in these designated food deserts are significantly more susceptible to obesity related disease, to which the state of New Jersey spends nearly $600 million each year to combat (Smith, 2012). Additionally, the prevalence of food deserts aligns with socioeconomic disparities. Multiple studies indicate that there are four times fewer supermarkets in these socioeconomically deprived areas (Handbury et al., 2015).
In addition to a lack of accessibility, produce found in many retailers often originates from thousands of miles away. According to the 2018 Locavore Index – a ranking system using indicators related to local food consumption and production - New Jersey stands as #42 in the country in its commitment to local and regional food (Locavore Index, 2015). This disappointing statistic stands in stark contrast to the state’s thriving agriculture industry. Each year NJ ranks in the top 10 states for growing such items as cranberries, bell-peppers, and tomatoes. In fact, NJ has some of the most productive preserved farmland in the country – making farming an important economic driver in the state.
The Northern New Jersey Regional Foodshed Resiliency Plan identifies significant potential for increasing local food production and consumption. Only 88 of the 10,000 crop producing farms located within NJ participate in localized distribution or community supported agriculture programs (Foodshed Alliance, 2015). Food hubs have recently emerged as a viable means of increasing access to local, fresh, and nutritious foods in underrepresented, low-income, “food desert” areas.
The most populous urban area in the state of New Jersey, nearly 1 out of 4 Newark residents are economically forced to choose between food and other essential costs. As the most populated urban area in the State, it has become increasingly evident that food-insecurity must be approached both strategically and systematically. Non-government stakeholders and technical experts are required to drive food policy formation and the creation of food hubs in the most at-risk wards of the city.
Someone or some group needs to be a champion for these projects. With our groups transdisciplinary expertise and already established research, we believe that bottom-up approach could help the city regain ground in the battle against food insecurity. Although our ideas have been established through a research-based approach, we realize that without support from the community, the chances of a project being successful are slim.
Our team has already established strong connections with local community organizations, private and public sector entities, as well as Robert Wood Johnson Healthcare organization. The integrated cooperation between these organizations throughout the city will be essential for the success of a food hub network in the City of Newark. Having extensively researched best practices for sourcing, aggregation, marketing, and distribution of regionally grown produce, we hope to establish our proof-of-concept food hub system in the South Ward, one of the most at-risk urban communities in Newark.
Food insecurity must not be approached in a singular direction. Our team understands that problems associated with transportation, health, and education hinder any progress towards our ultimate goal. This is why we have developed a system which integrates traditional market-style produce vending, with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), delivery services, and mobile operations. Every node of this network will include a robust educational element.
Young people hold the key to the longevity of an improved food system in Newark. We have been met with much interest by local schools who wish to educate their students about the importance of healthy food choices. Our perspective initiatives will focus our efforts on schools for both infrastructure and information dissemination. It is been proven that knowledge and local insight often travels upstream from children to parents and extended family groups. In addition, we are confident that with this approach, excitement will billow throughout community and cultural groups – often hard to infiltrate by more traditional means.