Urban Farming Provides Food Security
Today, 146,750 or more Essex County, NJ residents will experience food insecurity. Not quite starvation, yet not nearly enough to qualify as a healthy lifestyle, the USDA defines food insecurity as reductions in the quality, variety, or desirability of diet. In extreme cases, this is accompanied by disruptive eating patterns due to poor or reduced food intake, and the health risks that come with it.
Today, and every day, nearly 20% of Essex County will have to account for one or many of these barriers when trying to feed themselves and their families. This demographic of food desert dwellers make up the highest gap of food security in the entire state. Nearly 70% of these affected residents meet the 185% of FPL (Federal Poverty Line) requirements, making them dependent on state benefits such as SNAP, WIC or lunch programs.
Even with this assistance from the state, food poor families in Essex County still report experiencing insecurity, and 30% of food insecure individuals are not receiving benefits at all. More than half of those shopping with food stamps are employed.
Despite these unnerving figures, food stamp programs have continued to be a heated bipartisan issue, and even under the liberal leaning Obama administration $8.7 billion was cut from food assistance spending in 2015. By contrast, industrialized agriculture received $24 billion in subsidies the same year.
As big farms receive big breaks, Congress is currently looking to cut even more from food assistance programs, and people are still going hungry. How can this be?
To find answers, real estate driven urban planning and economic barriers such as cost of living, access to food sources, and educational opportunities that affect upward mobility must be considered as major factors driving food insecurity and income inequality. According to data collected by John Manieri, AICP for a study at Rutgers University, Essex County has the highest rate of food insecurity and wealth inequality in New Jersey, each fact dependent on the harsh truth of the other.
With a Gini index of 53.6, the economy of Essex County is considered half as equal as a healthy model would be. Consider the Household Income Ratio of Essex County for perspective: at 6.26 on an 80/20 quartile scale, the top quarter income bracket is a stunning 6x greater than that of the bottom 25%.
Manieri's figures give Essex County the 26th highest Gini Index of every county in the United States; The 80/20 ratio of 6.26 place Essex County as the 62nd highest of all counties nationwide. When isolating for counties with populations of 250,000 or over, however, the rankings only get more concerning. Of the most populous counties, Essex County takes the fifth highest spot in regards to its Gini Index Score; 10th highest in regards of its 80/20 ratio. It is clear that Essex County is not just the most unequal county in New Jersey, but one of the most challenging economies in the entire country.
Contributing to Essex County's highest rate of inequality in the state is a cost of living that is 30% higher than the national average, with groceries costing 10% more. Despite this, SNAP does not account for different incomes and consumer costs, applying the same income requirements to residents of all 48 contiguous states. This leaves those living in the shades of the suburbs of wealthy cities at a disadvantage.
These gaps in lifestyle put estimates for the price to prepare an average meal in Essex County at $3.72/person. At that rate, it costs approximately $300 to meet the needs of a single person for a month, yet SNAP only allots $192 for a single person and $504 for a household of three.
This means a family of three, already dependent on assistance, will have to pay nearly $400 a month out of pocket (from a maximum gross monthly income of $3149). Even making the maximum wage allowed, paying an average rent of $1400/mo. leaves these families with only $1300 (or, $450 per person) to cover all other expenses. With wealth gaps so large, government attempts to meet people halfway are failing to address food insecurity.
Monthly budgets only tighten as residents are seeing consistently rising housing costs each year. Currently the cost of housing in Montclair is sitting around 200% higher than the national average. Even in East Orange housing averages 20% higher despite the median income being $36k/yr. With housing eating up their incomes, low income residents don't have much for to spare each month. As the real estate market only becomes more competitive, it is unavoidable to overpay on rent or mortgage in Essex County. The high rates left over 2,000 people homeless last year (or, 24% of NJ's homeless population, the highest concentration in the state).
For those who can't afford the prime real estate but manage to move to a less trendy area, the layout of retailers in Essex County can create additional barriers known as food deserts. Often, towns sharing borders experience starkly different consumer experiences. This is clear when looking at East Orange residents' access to two large supermarket chains that are supplemented with several bodega style markets. In contrast, nearby Montclair has four well stocked, albeit costly, supermarkets within a five mile radius, as well as two farmers markets. To access the same goods as Montclair shoppers, East Orange residents would have to travel five to seven miles one way. And no matter where shoppers go for groceries in the state, NJ still ranks 8th highest for food costs in the country.
This creates a paradox for food insecure consumers already suffering from expensive headaches: pay the higher price for fresher or organic produce and find a way to get to a larger and out of the way chain (and hope the selection is good); or stay local, save on transportation or markup (and know the selection may not be prime). These are real choices that have become normal to many Essex County residents.
While state programs work to give those in need an advantage, the wealth gap widens as slow infrastructure projects and bureaucratic public plans are negotiated. The protests at Lackawana Plaza last year over the closing of Montclair's Pathmark in 2015 highlighted this problem on a hyperlocal level. Despite the pressure the demonstrators put on local government to engage with this issue, reports say it may take two years to bring another grocer to Lackawana Plaza - assuming a grocer bids for the contract at all.
With limited options, increasing costs of basic needs, and a median income of ~$52k (down 4%), typical economic models may not immediately improve food security in Essex County. Over half of residents are earning 6x that of lower income residents making it unlikely that prices will drop through usual market demands like real estate or business. And if the state's assistance can’t even help the truly needy, how does the community close this gap and secure themselves?
Food Security - Essex County
Better choices start with better options. Community gardens and urban farms are a way to provide the resources and knowledge to build better lives together. With reliable and generally favorable seasons, Northern NJ is an ideal climate to grow a wide variety of crops. Small spaces demand urban farming is done sustainably, helping residents directly support the environment.
It’s estimated that an additional $96 million/yr is needed to meet the food needs of the food insecure in Essex County. With the right crops and conditions, 1/2 acre of land can produce $100k of agriculture in a few seasons. This means that if East Orange alone converted just 480 acres of unused space, or 0.75 sq mi of its 4, they could provide food security for all of Essex County. With urban farming, closing the nutritional and food security gap in an organic way is achievable now.
In addition to addressing the immediate problem of food insecurity, urban farming provides long term solutions and tools for neighborhoods to establish collective identities and stand united against inequality. When people are more connected and invested in their communities, they will work harder to preserve and protect them. Already there are plans to redevelop East Orange into a transportation hub, supported by the construction of townhomes by real estate investors.
While developing East Orange to be attractive for commuters isn’t a bad step, it is only one of many necessary ones to establish a strong identity for the city. Communal urban farming and gardening is an an alternative option that will increase the value of property of residents for residents, making urban areas of Essex County such as East Orange less susceptible to gentrification as they grow.
Urban farms and community gardens don't just combat inequality and provide a long term solution for food insecurity in Northern NJ, they become gateways for residents to gain a foothold in the agriculture industry, our third most profitable sector in the state. Programs such as The Reinvestment Fund's New Jersey Food Access Initiative (NJFAI) and the NJ Partnership for Healthy Kids are already working with emerging urban farmers to connect them with resources and local retailers.
In a similar vein, the educational opportunities of urban farming will pave a way for residents to acquire lifelong, transferable skills while improving their nutritional knowledge. Studies have found that access to fresh food is not the root cause to poor diets, as low income households still spend 87% of their food budget at grocery stores. Rather, major differences in health seem to be driven by affordability. Supplementing a food budget gives people time and resources to learn about growing and the means to consume healthy, local produce. This engagement can infuse communities with passion for nutritional health and open up doors for their diet. With niche knowledge and a high production ability, residents can become self sufficient in personal and professional ways.
Better choices start with better options
Urban farms and community gardens are a way to provide the resources and knowledge to build better lives together
Coeur et Sol’s first urban lot this spring is an attempt to lead by example. While many crops will be grown for commercial sale, it is our hope that this first lot will be a new space for learning, stewardship, giving back to the East Orange community, and a model for our and others future plots.
This space is where we hope to create an exhibition showcasing the full potential of ethical farming in an urban environment that provides immediate support to the community and inspires others to get involved.
If food security, fresh produce, and equal access matter to you, consider growing and learning with us and other urban farms nearby. We may not be able to feed all 146,740 of the food insecure residents yet, but together we can try to feed one neighborhood at a time.