Magic Johnson Visits Hospital Greenhouse That Supports Urban Farmers
Magic Johnson visits AM Hydro’s vertical farming installation at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey.
Long rows of fresh herbs and vegetables neatly line the enclosed and sunlit space, filling it with an earthy scent and an abundance of green. Tiny plants of basil peek out from their squares, string beans grow on winding vines on the left side of the entrance, and toward the back, a lone bright lemon hangs from its stem.
“Oh yeah, this is great,” Earvin “Magic” Johnson says to the greenhouse’s community wellness coordinator, gently touching the yellow fruit in admiration.
Basketball legends, greenhouses, and hospitals might not seem to have a lot in common, but Magic Johnson, this particular greenhouse, and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center sure do.
Johnson, 60, toured the hospital’s greenhouse—the only hospital to have one in New Jersey—Thursday afternoon, as part of the hospital’s health and wellness initiatives and partnership with Johnson’s own company, SodexoMAGIC. Both organizations are working to increase access to nutritious food and wellness in the city, along with educating people on healthy lifestyles.
Eighteen percent of Newark’s 72,000 children live in extreme poverty, compared to 7% of New Jersey children overall, the hospital said in a release. More than half of the children receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Essex County live in Newark, it also said.
Johnson and Darrell Terry, the hospital’s president and CEO, talked about the limited access those kids have to fresh fruits and vegetables while they’re growing up -- something they’re aiming to change now.
“You had the bodegas, but you didn’t have the access,” Terry said. “So we’re not only trying to educate about it but provide the access. I was born in this hospital and grew up not far from here, and you’re right, there was no supermarket, so you go to the bodega. You didn’t have these healthy options, so people chose what was convenient and cheap.”
“And you can see it, you can touch it, you can eat it,” Johnson added, referencing the hospital’s greenhouse and farmer’s market, a weekly program at the hospital that invites urban community farmers to sell their goods. “You know, I’ve been to a lot of hospitals, but I’ve never seen fresh produce right here and they can pick it up right here. That’s been amazing to see.”
The Beth’s Greenhouse, which started in 2016, utilizes hydroponic growing, which grows plants in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution, instead of soil. About 100 pounds of food— cultivated and harvested at the greenhouse—is sold every week at the Farmer’s Market and donated to local food pantries.
Located in the hospital’s lobby every Thursday, the Farmer’s Market opened in 2011, as one of the hospital's first wellness initiatives. From Granny Smith apples and parsnips to butternut squash and microgreens, there was a variety of fresh produce at the most recent market.
And in October 2017, the hospital started accepting NJ SNAP benefits at both the greenhouse and the farmer’s market, allowing people to affordably purchase fruits and vegetables.
Newark Beth Israel is the first and only hospital-based vendor in New Jersey that allows people to use SNAP for its locally grown produce, it said. Proceeds from sales are reinvested in programming for health and wellness activities in the community, a release said.
But more than providing access to healthier foods and wellness programs, the hospital and Johnson said they want to educate on and encourage lifestyle changes. He stressed that practicing what he’s preaching is a crucial step in impacting the community.
“So I had my protein shake, I eat egg whites,” he said, “So my diet changed years ago, and so, now maybe to say (to someone else), ‘Hey, I’m doing it myself.’”
Last year, the hospital partnered with SodexoMAGIC to provide food services for both employees and patients. The company focuses on diversity and inclusion within the community, Terry said.
This week marked the first time the basketball hall of famer visited the hospital, and people were excited. Throngs of people closely surrounded Johnson as he moved through the hospital, their arms extended with their phones, in hopes of taking a selfie with the star, whose infectious smile was hard to miss.
Johnson graciously obliged, taking photos with as many people as possible, and greeting everyone individually, with a warm handshake and a sincere “How are you?”
In his concluding talk to a packed auditorium at the hospital, filled with enthusiastic doctors, nurses, staff, and community members, Johnson spoke of his childhood and his dreams growing up. The basketball player, who has lived with HIV since 1991, talked about the importance of healthy living and said Terry is doing “great things, out of the box things” at the hospital.
“This is a true community-based hospital, with its leader being born right here, and also having ties to the community,” Johnson said. “So I love it, I love being a part of something. It’s changing mindsets, attitudes, and now, your body.”