Creating an Oasis in a Food Desert

More than 2,000 citizens in Newark do not live within one mile of fresh food and vegetables, according to Rutgers University-Newark Earth and Environmental Science Professor Ashaki Rouff. Community gardens would seem to be a solution for residents of these “food deserts,” but the majority of such gardens in Newark are created from recovered vacant lots where the soil is polluted. This puts agriculture opportunities at risk. Faculty and staff members from Rutgers University-Newark are working with community residents to take on this problem collaboratively.

Graduate student Omanjana Goswami explains to volunteers where to collect soil samples for research at the community garden in Newark. Credit: Shannon Gillmann

“Newark has been subject to significant industrialization, and many of its soils are contaminated with pollution from multiple sources, including traffic, waste facilities, and industrial plants. Heavy metals, in particular, can be prevalent in urban soils, providing pathways for human exposure through ingestion or inhalation of dust and potential transfer into garden vegetables,” according to graduate student Omanjana Goswami who is collaborating with Rouff on the research.

Rouff and Goswami have been sampling the soil at sites in Newark for the past two years in a project originally designed to help create a fertilizer for community gardens in the city. Enlisting the help of Rutgers-Newark undergraduates and various Newark high school students, the research group gathered organic material on dairy farms around New Jersey and brought it back to assess how effective they would be in helping the gardens. After collecting and creating the organic fertilizer, the research group investigated the soil on which the fertilizer would be used and discovered the presence of pollutants in the community garden soils.

Supported by a Rutgers-Newark Chancellor’s Seed Grant, they have continued their work and discovered that the fertilizer they previously created could be used to decontaminate the soil, which was found to have amounts of lead that exceeded New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Guidance Values.

The research group considers their work a big step toward promoting safe, healthy neighborhoods, as well as building awareness of the impact of collaborative research by faculty, students, and community members.

Graduate Student Omanjana Goswami and a volunteer collect soil samples at a community garden in Newark. Credit: Ashaki Rouff

“Big companies such as Whole Foods and Amazon are starting to help make Newark a better eco-friendly city by having their employees live within walking distance of their respected jobs,” observed Rouff.  “With more and more companies hopefully trying to follow this trend along with our efforts in this project, Newark will only continue to thrive and be a healthy cleaner place for everyone.”

Rouff added, “By having local gardens it lowers the cost of fresh produce at markets.  The stores do not have to pay extraordinary amounts to ship and receive their fruits and vegetables if they are grown locally.  Fewer means of transportation will lead to less traffic, pollution, prices, and an increase in sales.”

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