It was a proud moment at the Willing Heart Community Care Center in Newark, where 13 local veterans graduated Saturday as the third-annual class of the Rutgers Veterans Environmental Technology and Solutions (VETS) program.
The Rutgers VETS program was launched in May 2014; a unique collaboration between Rutgers University, the Metropolitan Baptist Church Development Corporation and the Lower Passaic River Cooperating Parties Group (CPG), comprising 52 companies working to improve the condition of the river. Each member of this partnership was integral in launching a project that is likely the first of its kind in the country.
The program was prompted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to remediate the Lower Passaic River. The Rutgers VETS program grows healthy fish to exchange with contaminated fish that some anglers are taking from the river as food. The program is designed to immediately reduce human health risk while a long-term remediation plan moves forward for the river.
The Rutgers VETS program provides green job skills for veterans in an on-site greenhouse. There is also an aquaponics component to the program, in which water from the fish tanks is used to provide nutrients for growing vegetables which are donated to the church pantry next door.
A view from inside the Rutgers VETS greenhouse, where the class helped grow 500 tilapia, as well as assorted fruits and vegetables.
This graduating class grew fish and vegetables while also creating community gardens around Newark. There was also plenty of classroom instruction, with Rutgers bringing in experts in horticulture and urban agriculture, as well as coordinating trips to show the veterans that what they’ve learned in the classroom is put into practice in the field.
At Saturday’s graduation, it was noted that five of the classmates have started their own landscaping business and have secured a contract with the City of Newark, slated to begin in the spring.
Rutgers VETS has been lauded as a groundbreaking initiative to reduce the human health risk in the Lower Passaic River, while providing important job skills to local unemployed veterans.
“The graduates of this year’s class are ambitious and are on their way to starting new businesses, working in the community, and educating other local residents. It’s been a pleasure teaching this group and I look forward to seeing what they do next,” said Dr. Amy Rowe of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County, which recruited the veterans and ran the program.
Veterans underwent more than 900 hours of training in the areas of sustainable landscaping, agriculture, entrepreneurship, and aquaponics, which combines the raising of fish (aquaculture) with water-based crop production (hydroponics).
The CPG was pleased to fund a three-year pilot project for Rutgers VETS. Moving forward, Rutgers will oversee funding.
Saturday’s keynote speaker was Tobias Fox, founder of Newark Science and Sustainability. He spoke about feeding people sustainably and ensuring that the urban areas are not forgotten.
Dr. Arturo Osorio, representing Rutgers Business School (Newark), worked with the class several times over the course of the program. He spoke to the graduates about turning their ideas into plans and then into actions.
“It's not good enough to just have the ideas. They need to be acted upon,” he said.
To learn about funding opportunities, contact Amy Rowe at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County in Roseland at 908-235-1168