In a bid to revitalize the urban neighborhoods they call home, and break the costly cycle of obesity-related chronic diseases, New Jersey hospitals are increasingly getting involved on grocery store projects.
“In general, while there are grocery stores and places to get food in the South Ward, it’s not as easy — and there’s not the same amount and varieties of food,” said Dr. John Brennan, executive director of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
In response, Newark Beth Israel’s assistant vice president of wellness, Barbara Mintz, has implemented within the hospitals’ community programs an urban garden and a farmers market at the hospital to increase access.
“As a clinician, I just think this is what we’re supposed to be doing,” Mintz said. “Being a real community — living in the community, not just working here and going home — is part of it, as well.”
The hospital’s involvement dovetails with a state program, the New Jersey Food Access Initiative, to encourage such projects. The program was launched in late March, funded mostly by a $12 million infusion from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to encourage development of grocery stores and other access points to fresh food in so-called food deserts like Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and New Brunswick.
“Supermarkets are good if they are affordable and there’s healthy food to choose from,” Mintz said. “But I think the easiest way to get things done — right back to the garden or greenhouse — is that we’ve got so many ugly, dirty lots in cities like this, and we can put them to use, rooftops can be put to use. Those are easy things to do. We’ve got to start somewhere.”
Brennan said the garden is part of an overall strategy for the hospital.
“From a business perspective, we’re focused on Newark Beth becoming a hub,” he said. “What we’re doing is increasing our geography, increasing the populations we’re serving and increasing the trust that population has of us to do the right thing.”
Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital is meeting a similar mission through a fitness center that’s so far attracted nearly 2,000 members. When Wellness Plaza opens in the fall, it will mark a milestone in the partnership between RWJ and Fitness and Wellness of New Brunswick, the anchor tenant that attracted The Fresh Grocer to the project.
“Robert Wood Johnson, in several locations throughout the state … has become a market center,” said Christopher J. Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corp., the developer of the plaza project. “Not only does it serve as an anchor with respect to the destination, it does set a tone for a wellness lifestyle.”
The hospital also is moving its community health programs to the plaza, where staff will be able to take small groups on tours of the grocery store, teach label reading and have healthy cooking demonstrations.
In addition to having RWJ’s recognizable name on the building, having the hospital’s support allowed the project to grow large enough to “cobble together a wide and disparate group of resources” to finance the development, Paladino said. That’s critical, he said, because of the high cost of land in New Brunswick, which makes it nearly impossible for an operator to purchase the amount of space required for a standalone grocery store — the property cost needs to be spread over a larger project in order to be feasible.
Elsewhere, Lourdes Health System is partnering with Grapevine Development, the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and the Camden County Improvement Authority to build a transit village on Haddon Avenue, in Camden, on property adjacent to Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. The first phase of the village is to include a parking structure, medical offices and a 70,000-square-foot supermarket.
Alexander Hatala, president and CEO of Lourdes Health System, said “as a values-based, faith-based organization, we decided to stay and be an anchoring presence in the city, meeting health care needs but also helping in terms of rebuilding the city of Camden.”
Hatala said the city’s obesity problem is partly caused by eating habits “related to access to healthy choices” and “what it translates to later on in life is many medical conditions that are very costly for society to bear … they become chronic illnesses.”
The property qualifies for transit-related incentives, including the Urban Transit Hub tax credit program, because it’s located adjacent to a rail stop that will be better connected to the medical center by the development, according to Anthony Perno III, CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership.
Perno said the urban transit credit “will help make a supermarket in Camden a reality,” and the project is in place except for an operator for the supermarket — potential suitors have indicated they are nervous about the economics and buying power in the city.
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