NEWARK, NJ — On and around the property where West Side High School stands, the view is less than picturesque, according to Principal Akbar Cook.
“We’re literally on a cemetery, and on the other side of that are abandoned buildings,” he said. “What are the images, these subconscious things you’re trying to plant in my kids’ heads?”
The principal, who has earned national recognition for enacting radical change in the West Ward through the Lights On! afterschool program, is well on his way to transforming his campus into the utopia he imagines. After consulting with educators in the Bronx about a year ago on the creation of community gardens, a partnership with the nonprofit Jersey CARES, the Urban Agriculture Cooperative and others is yielding a one-acre urban farm at West Side High.
The farm, which will feature vegetable beds, an orchard, a hydroponic greenhouse, an outdoor classroom and a space to preserve and prepare foods, was set to see completion this summer, but COVID-19 threw a wrench in those plans. Urban Agriculture Cooperative is currently busy at work laying down the infrastructure for the project and expects construction to be completed in January.
The funding for the project comes from a $100,000 gift from Ellen DeGeneres and a $50,000 grant from L.L. Bean.
As the district’s designated business-focused comprehensive high school, West Side will incorporate agribusiness education into the student learning experience, as well as environmental science and nutrition. Cook said students will focus on an artisan hot sauce called Rider Heat after the school’s sports teams, complete with a logo of a jalapeño riding a horse.
Newark Public Schools rolled out career academies at its comprehensive high schools in late 2019 and early 2020 as part of its district improvement plan. Rutgers Business School is West Side’s higher education partner and will be involved in the supply chain aspect of the hot sauce bottling and distribution.
“My kids say they always want to get to the bag, and I find it hard to steer them away from the fast buck of doing dealings in the street,” Cook said. “So if I provide opportunities for internships where they can get paid through the city of Newark, and provide opportunities for them to be entrepreneurs in my school, I can steer that many kids away from that life.”
Each child will have their own website through the platform Mighty Networks, which will feature products from the farm.
Emilio Panasci, founder and executive director of Urban Agriculture Cooperative, said an additional partner in Robert Wood Johnson Beth Israel Medical Center will provide curriculum designed by dietitians that can be incorporated into the programming.
“We want it to be economically viable, we want it to produce, but we also want it to be a space for education and to just chill out and be in nature,” Panasci said. “We’re very focused on bringing resources wherever we can to urban growers or helping them build out their space.”
Urban Agriculture’s involvement also sets out to combat food poverty by bringing farmer’s markets and fresh foods to urban communities and reducing food waste through compost.
At West Side, where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and often lack access to healthy meals, the urban farm is also part of a model of liberation from food inequity. One multi-state study found that only 8% of African Americans live in a tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites, according to the Food Trust.
This has deep health consequences in Black and brown communities, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.
Sandra Ragoo, department chair of science at West Side, is finally seeing her agriculture degree in action in her final years working for the district. A native of Trinidad and Tabago, Ragoo grew up farming everything she ate with her family, right down to the grains.
After years of teaching science and working in the health sector, Ragoo said she’s looking forward to showing students where their food comes from.
“A lot of the time when you live in an urban area, you don’t have a connection with your food source,” Ragoo said. “Having a farm and having the kids actually see how food is produced, and actually get their hands dirty in the soil, if we can increase that connection with food and the environment, I think we will have kids that are more self-aware and conscious.”