Jersey City has signed a three-year contract with the Newark-based vertical farming company AeroFarms and plans to begin growing leafy greens in 10 locations, including senior centers, schools, public housing complexes and municipal buildings later this year.
Once the microgreens start sprouting, members of the community will be able to sign up to receive free produce. They’ll be encouraged to attend seminars about healthy eating and get regular health tests done through Quest Diagnostics, which has also partnered with the city.
Vertical farming is one method of hydroponic controlled environment agriculture. Instead of being grown outside in soil, plants in vertical farms are stacked on shelves inside, misted with nutrients and lit with LED lights in lieu of sunlight.
Because the environment is completely controlled, the weather cannot destroy or affect crops. Vertical farming saves water. It reduces runoff. There’s no need for pesticides. And any kind of crop can be grown year-round. Fulop predicts Jersey City’s program will produce 19,000 pounds of food annually.
But there are downsides.
Vertical farming is extremely energy-intensive. Even energy-saving LED lights require a huge amount of power to shine on the crops. According to mayor Steven Fulop, Jersey City has no way to offset the impact of this energy use yet. Many of the farms are housed in decades-old buildings that have not been updated to include solar panels or other energy-saving technologies.
The other issue with vertical farming is that leafy greens are essentially the only plants worth growing, said Broad. Larger, heavier fruits and vegetables have too much biomass and require too much artificial light and nutrients to grow in a cost-effective way.
Jersey City will have to do extensive community outreach to make vertical farming a long-term success – which means reaching out to faith leaders, schools and groups that are trusted by the community and getting them involved with the distribution of produce.
Jersey City has launched a few food initiatives in past years. The city gave grants to bodegas and corner stores to redesign display cases, putting fruits and vegetables next to their counters instead of snacks and candy to encourage healthy eating. Another program involved walking senior citizens around a supermarket and teaching them to read the labels on the back of packaged foods. At the end of the tour, they were given money and encouraged to purchase healthy meals.
Areas in which there is an extreme lack of nutritious, affordable food have been called “food deserts.” Jersey City is one such place, but if given the right attention, a vertical farming initiative could be a step toward addressing poverty and its food inequality.