At a greenhouse and garden growing behind the Metropolitan Baptist Church's Willing Heart Community Care Center on MLK Boulevard, Newark native, resident and Army veteran Rodney Spencer is getting his hands dirty. 

Rodney Spencer (left) demonstrates drip irrigation techniques to members of the Rutgers VETS.

"I was living in my car for a while after I left the service," said Spencer, 41, program intern for the Rutgers Veterans Environmental Technology and Solutions, or Rutgers VETS, which teaches veterans employment skills using a holistic approach involving landscaping, horticulture and urban farming. "But after I found this program, everything fell into place."

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The Rutgers VETS program is a groundbreaking initiative launched in May 2014 to reduce immediate health risks to people who eat fish caught from the Passaic River, while empowering local, unemployed veterans with new green job skills that can be used immediately.

It is a unique collaboration between Rutgers University, the Metropolitan Baptist Church Reassertion Community Development Corporation and the Lower Passaic River Cooperating Parties Group, comprising 60 companies working together to improve the condition of the Lower Passaic River.

On June 20, the VETS class launched the first-ever fish exchange in the United States. The exchange was prompted in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to remediate the Lower Passaic River and concern about human health risk to those who continue to eat contaminated fish from the river despite the state's consumption ban.

The Rutgers VETS now raise healthy fish to exchange with contaminated fish that some anglers are taking from the river as food. The waste from the fish raised in the VETS greenhouse is used to provide nutrients (nitrogen) to vegetables growing in this connected system. The initiative is providing useful data about fishing in the Passaic and results in the immediate reduction of human health risk for the fishermen - as well as their families - while a long-term solution for the River's remediation is being determined.

To date, about 72 fish have been exchanged through the program, as the Rutgers VETS have fanned across the lower 17 miles of the river, eager to find fishermen and swap their catch.

"We keep hearing about people fishing on the river, but the veterans have been scouting and they aren’t finding them,” said Amy Rowe, an assistant professor with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County and co-director of the Rutgers VETS program. "However, we're only halfway through the fishing season and we intend to continue our efforts."

As part of its community outreach, the Rutgers VETS donate each week approximately 250 heads of lettuce grown in the greenhouse to the food pantry of the Willing Heart Community Care Center, located on the site. With summer here, the Rutgers VETS also provide tomatoes and seasonal fresh vegetables, including kale, to the needy.

The program is now on its second round of trainees in the eight-month program, in which each veteran is provided with a $12-an-hour educational stipend to learn marketable skills that could land them full-time employment or help them start a business.

Rutgers VETS is proud of the inaugural class, which graduated in February, as many have moved on to higher education or employment. Some have started their own landscaping businesses, others have enrolled in college or – like Rodney Spencer – stayed involved in the program.

How it Works

The Rutgers VETS program focuses on aquaponics, a hybrid approach to farming that combines hydroponics, (the process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid with added nutrients but without soil) with aquaculture, (the cultivation of plants, especially using fish in natural or controlled marine or freshwater environments.)

The aquaponic method - well-suited to the limited-space challenges presented by a greenhouse in the middle of Newark’s Central Ward - looks to the untrained eye like a complicated Rube Goldberg machine. The ultimate output, however, is based on a basic cycle of life.

The tilapia raised inside two large, blue plastic tanks deposit excrement, which then flows through a connecting pipe to a large tray where edible plants grow hydroponically. The plants, after filtering the waste from the water, then release clean water through the connecting pipe back into the fish tank.

This aquaponic agricultural activity allows the Rutgers VETS to grow a variety of vegetables, including kale, tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, cilantro, radishes and squash. The produce is then given to the needy who visit the food pantry run by the Metropolitan Baptist Church, conveniently just a few feet away from the greenhouse.

According to Matthew Smith, the Rutgers VETS program coordinator, the program gives veterans a second chance at life.

"When I came home from war, I had no skills, and the only job I could get was at a Chili's restaurant. I know what it's like," explained Smith, 28, an Army combat engineer who survived tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It seems the worst place to be a returning veteran is Essex County, which I believe has the highest unemployment rate for veterans in New Jersey.

“We need trained, skilled workers for our economy, and we are teaching the Rutgers VETS some solid skills they can use to get back on their feet,” he said. “All human beings are intrinsically connected to plants and water, and this work, along with providing practical skills, has a therapeutic aspect that veterans really need. There is nothing quite like this program in New Jersey or across the country, for that matter."

Addressing the Need

Rowe underscored the need to promote the program, noting the high unemployment rate for veterans in New Jersey.

"We want to expose people here in Newark to new possibilities and different career opportunities," explained Rowe, noting she is now aggressively seeking grants and other sponsors to ensure a successful future for the program.

"Former criminal offenders and former veterans come to the same place along different paths, but they often experience the same barriers to entry back into the workplace,” she said. “We can help to break that pattern. We want to show people that they can start their own business, be their own boss and successfully start over again."

Here’s how the VETS program works: Rutgers University provides the daily oversight of the program, as well as recruitment of the veterans. The Lower Passaic Cooperating Parties Group has funded the entire cost to start-up the program, including leasing the space, constructing the greenhouse and providing the veterans’ educational stipends. The other partner is the Metropolitan Baptist Church, which owns the site of the greenhouse and classroom space, and provides access to the food pantry.

Seeking Partnerships

Rowe said that the Rutgers Business School in Newark is coming on board as an active partner, with professors lined up to educate the current class of 14 veterans about critical non-agricultural skills such as budgeting and time management. Rowe hopes for more corporate and non-profit sponsorships from Newark's business community, as well as support from national groups intrigued by this one-of-a-kind fish exchange.

There were many program supporters who attended the inaugural graduation, held in February, including Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, who chairs the Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, who chairs the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. Also in attendance was Newark Councilman John Sharpe James, a U.S. Army major who led a 13-man combat team in Afghanistan and was wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device.

Rodney Spencer, who was a member of the inaugural class of Rutgers VETS, is now working as Smith's assistant, with grand expansion plans for the program.

He wants the Rutgers VETS program to spread its roots into the city's public school system, bringing in students to appreciate the daily ritual of coaxing nature through a patient and dedicated effort. Building on his and other veterans' life experiences, he hopes to help Newark grow through the unique bond shared by those who served our country.

A mapmaker during his time in the U.S. Army, Spencer, against the odds, has found his true passion in the areas of sustainable landscaping, stormwater management and aquaponics.

"This project has had a deep social impact for me, and it reminded me of something," said Spencer. "In the military, we are all so used to helping people. Here, is it just an extension. I get to help my brothers and sisters every day.”

Learn more by emailing Rutgersvets@gmail.com or calling 973-732-2383. You can visit the VETS program at www.rutgersvets.orgor follow the group at Facebook.com/RutgersVETS