Jersey City Is Growing Leafy Greens for $17 Per Pound to Give Away for 'Free'

The city will spend close to $1 million building vertical gardens to provide produce for its healthy eating programs.


Sometimes you have to spend some green to make some green.

On Wednesday the city council of Jersey City, New Jersey will vote on awarding a three-year, $1 million contract to the company AeroFarms to build 11 vertical gardens on city properties. The company estimates it will be able to churn out 19,000 pounds of leafy greens a year from these installations, which will then be distributed for free to city residents.

Steven Fulop, the city's mayor, told that the farms would produce vegetables for city-run healthy eating programs. Residents would register for these programs to receive the free produce, on the possible condition that they would be required to attend healthy eating classes and/or have their diets and health monitored.

"It is going to be oriented towards diet, healthy eating and making people more aware of what they are putting into their body," Fulop said. "We are going to be hopefully changing outcomes of how people eat and live which ultimately changes life expectancy."

The $70 million hole the coronavirus pandemic has blown in the city's budget only makes the AeroFarms contract more valuable, the mayor told the news site, given how obesity can compound COVID-19. "We feel it is more important than ever to focus on food access and education," he said.

The "we'd be stupid not to do it" attitude is encouraging. The cost and overall concept of the program raises a few concerns, however.

According to AeroFarms' estimate, it will be able to produce about 58,000 pounds of produce over the life of its three-year contract.

This means that the city is paying $17 per pound of leafy vegetables produced. Even if one excludes the construction costs of the vertical farms (which would presumably be usable after the three-year contract ends), it's still paying a little over $7 per pound of produce.

A quick online search shows the city could buy a pound of spinach from Safeway for under $2 a pound. A 1-pound package of organic mixed greens at Walmart costs a little less than $5.

If the city were really so keen on improving the diets of its residents, it would probably be far cheaper for it to just buy produce from local grocers and then give it away.

Indeed, the city staff who evaluated AeroFarms' 2019 bid for the city's vertical farming contract (the only one the city ended up receiving) expressed concern about its costs, particularly given that the city wouldn't retain ownership of the vertical garden units.

The idea of bringing vertical farming to Jersey City is part of a broader initiative of the Swiss-based World Economic Forum to create public-private partnerships that will "design and support socially vibrant, and health and well-being centric communities in cities."

AeroFarms' method of vertical farming, which grows plants inside without the need for sunlight or soil and uses very little water, apparently fits into this broad vision. The World Economic Forum has been touting the promise of vertical farming since at least 2015.

Yet in that time, more boring improvements in agricultural technology have been at work boosting crop production while using less land. That's improved sustainability while driving down prices.

It's quite possible that one day, vertical urban farms will be a far more efficient option. Unfortunately, that day isn't here yet.

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  1. Taking bets that this program ends up serving almost none of the intended market and instead gets swarmed almost entirely by white women with Justin Bieber haircuts and NPR 15 consecutive year donor tote bags to give to their cats.

    1. Why do you hate cats?

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      2. He didn’t force each of those women to take in a dozen of them

  2. These people are under the misapprehension that the lower classes are fat and have poor diets because they are poor and stupid.

    No. Obesity is high and they have poor diets because they are busy. If it was just money, the cheapest diet you can have is rice, beans, onions, and chicken quarters. About $0.50 per pound for each. McDonalds, on the other hand is quick. It is also an affordable luxury for people that don’t have much in the way of luxuries. If they do suffer from occasional hunger, then the luxury of fattening food is all the more important.

    As for education. Please. Do you think anyone doesn’t know basic nutrition? Either they don’t care or are too busy to care.

    This will go the same way as the mandatory fruits and vegetables in convenience stores. This expensive produce will rot on the shelves unwanted and uneaten while the corrupt count the cash and the city elite pat themselves on the backs talking about the good they are doing. Maybe some of the truly poor will get some benefit, but it won’t be $17 per pound of groceries. It will be at a cost closer to $100 per pound.

    1. I have a pet theory that politicians secretly long for the glamor and power exuded by Hollywood business people — shouting orders, yelling for reports, banging tables, firing and hiring on a whim, but never actually doing anything remotely business-like.

      This is a perfect example of how little politicians actually know and how much they crave the Hollywood businessman life.

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  3. Hey, it’s just tax money, which grows on trees, so who cares!?!?!?

    1. Well they are turning money into shit, which you can eat.

      Why aren’t you happy?

    2. It’s certainly growing vertically in Jersey City.

  4. 9.5 tons of vegetables a year? Americans eat about 150 kg of vegetables a year on average (330 pounds) with tomatoes and potatoes being the most consumed. These are growing leafy vegetables. Even if we figure they are willing to eat 330 pounds of leafy vegetables, this will only feed 57 people for a year. Also, how large are these facilities? Does it compare to average production of vegetables grown on modern farms? What is the energy per kilogram of production? This seems like just more pointless virtue signalling by people who have suddenly realized that rural America doesn’t need them as much as they need rural America.

    1. It’s a fad. “Vertical farms” are made up by people who never leave cities and are convinced that we are running out of farmland like some dystopia. There is some delusion that they are better for the environment due to the lack of transportation emissions despite taking huge quantities of energy to build and grow.

      It’s all a method to separate fools from their money, which wouldn’t be so bad if it was their money they were spending.

      1. It is not a fad – it can make a profit. However, this smells like a sweetheart deal to prop up what might otherwise be an unprofitable business that was overfunded by VCs.

    2. also potatoes are pig food not vegetables.

      1. They were classified as vegetables even though they are a starch. If we removed potatoes, the amount of vegetables each Americans eats drops dramatically.

  5. esidents would register for these programs to receive the free produce, on the possible condition that they would be required to attend healthy eating classes and/or have their diets and health monitored.

    Sounds like Jersey City’s composting program is about to get overloaded.

    1. The mob will just label it medical waste, charge triple the hauling fee and dump it in the Hudson.

  6. In the old country before they changed it the family name was Fulopschitt.

  7. The “we’d be stupid not to do it” attitude is encouraging.

    But not remotely libertarian.

  8. So if I get some of these $17/lb greens, can I trade it in for some beef tenderloin?

  9. So long as some pub-sec union members are making money, hey, who cares?

  10. Leafy greens aren’t food; they are what food eats.

  11. Only in the Progressive People’s Republic of NJ…

  12. Let’s vote on it (or have the supposed consumers vote on it). Would they rather have a bag of salad every day, or their taxes cut by the equivalent amount.

    I’ll take the cash.

    1. Like there’s any chance that the leftists in government would cut taxes rather than finding another pointless (if not actually harmful) way of spending the money.

  13. 1. Buying something for yourself with your own money.

    2. Buying something for yourself with someone else’s money.

    3. Buying something for someone else with your money

    4. Buying something for someone else with someone else’s money.

  14. >>on the possible condition that they would be required to attend healthy eating classes and/or have their diets and health monitored

    fuck you w/the healthy eating classes do the peeps need salads or not?

  15. >>If the city were really so keen on improving the diets of its residents, it would probably be far cheaper for it to just buy produce from local grocers and then give it away.

    better yet, pay a local farmer to grow the produce under the sun. In New Jersey leafy greens can be grown outdoors or in minimal greenhouse 8 or 9 months per year. Indoor “vertical” gardens rely on expensive LED lights which also suck an enormous amount of carbon-generating electricity from the grid.

    1. Not to mention that doing pretty much everything “horizontally” is fundamentally more efficient at the bottom of a gravity well.

      This is where the willfully stupid math comes in. If the vertical farmer pumps a gallon of water 10 ft. in the air, it counts as using 1 gal. of water. Whereas if the dirt farmer allows 10 gal. to fall on his field and 9 gal. to run off, he wasted 9 gal. of water.

    2. Half-right. LEDs use a fraction of the electricity that non-LED lights use such as High Pressure Sodium or Metal Halide lights. LED grow lights are about that same price as those and alot more expensive than fluorescent (doesn’t work for everything).

      1. LED lights are more efficient, but when you have to match the intensity of the sun at the wavelengths used by plants, even efficient lights use a lot of energy. I guesstimate that if you used solar panels to generate the electricity, you’d need more than a square meter of solar panels to light 1 square meter of plants:

        Sunlight: 1600 watts/sq meter
        Solar panel efficiency: 30% at best, so 530 w/sqm
        Losses in power regulators, conversion, and batteries: I’ll assume that by directly connecting the solar panels to the LED arrays, we can get these losses to almost zero.
        LED efficiency: I haven’t heard of any better than 50%. Now it’s 265 w/sqm of panels – about 1/6 of the power falling on the solar panels.
        I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure you need more than 1/6 of the sun’s light for vegetables to grow as well as they do in an open field.

        In other words, you’d be better off getting rid of the solar panels and vertical garden, and just growing crops as usual in the space of the panels. But that employs peasants rather than techies.

        Not that there is anything wrong with peasants. Most of my ancestors were peasants. But they got better…

  16. Just throw out some arugula seed, that stuff is a weed and will grow on concrete. More than free if you let it go to seed. 1 plant = 10k seeds.

    1. The Brits call it “rocket”.

  17. “If the city were really so keen on improving the diets of its residents, it would probably be far cheaper for it to just buy produce from local grocers and then give it away.”

    And eliminate the possibility of graft? Seriously? In New Jersey?

    1. Sure.
      I’m sure you think the USPS should privatized as well.

  18. The criticism misses the real point of this program. It is to give public money to a business that has made generous donations to certain politicians. Not only to get the contract but can then raise the price to the city each and every year and increase those political donations 100% paid by tax revenues.

    1. Bingo.

  19. Hmmm, interesting article. I don’t think I like the road this is heading towards.

    Dave | concrete patio

  20. The contract itself does show how much cities really do need Georgists (not single tax but people who understand land) as an alternative to D’s and R’s.

    The land itself is city-owned property – 11 different parcels – and remains so. Which is at least avoiding the usual ‘neoliberal’ cronyism of handing out land deals for free.

    I suspect that a vertical garden is actually a productive use of otherwise difficult-to-use land. Urban gardens are very popular and sell out their space and offer significant positive externalities re schools/education. The notion that cities should simply abandon biology/botany/etc lessons because there is no greenery in cities is pathetic R crap. Question a Georgist would overtly ask though is – are these really otherwise difficult-to-use spaces. And you can design ways to make sure that that IS the case. That said vertical garden would actually deliver land taxes there that are higher than the alternative uses.

    Further, there is a very different ag business model from the one that otherwise dominates the US. The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of food/ag by value in the world – despite a population density that is overall comparable to some of the more spread-out cities in the US (Jacksonville, Nashville, KC, Scottsdale, Birmingham, Huntsville, Duluth, OK City, etc). So in fact there is an ag model based on economizing land. There is zero possibility that will emerge in rural areas in the US where there is no need to economize on land. There is no reason why the US should simply give up on that simply because we’ve decided to impose a ‘national’ central plan (via our monetary and ownership system) re land usage/pricing. There is also however no reason to believe that the one bidder here has the slightest clue of anything beyond ‘let’s grow leafy greens’.

    The structure of the contract – same bidder doing the construction and the 3 yr maintenance – with the CITY owning all ag product – also grown by that bidder – is simply ludicrous- and apparently there is not even the ability to sublease that space incorporated in the construction design (unlike urban gardens).

    There is a great opportunity in urban areas for some combo of green/libertarian to incorporate classical economics. It ain’t gonna come from the D’s or R’s – and not from the big-G’s or big-L’s either.

    1. I fell sorry for OBL. Dude’s got nothing on you true believers.

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  21. “AeroFarms’ method of vertical farming, which grows plants inside without the need for sunlight”

    So it requires electricity to produce light to grow the plants, and the same people pushing this are telling us that our energy usage is destroying the planet through climate change. They pretend to care about the environment, but throw it under the bus every time there’s a conflict with anything else in their agenda.

    Does this also mean that the $17 per pound is an underestimate that doesn’t include energy costs (and presumably other costs), or all operating and overhead expenses included at a $1 million flat rate? I don’t recall _ever_ seeing a government contract that actually included _all_ the costs at a flat rate.

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