New Jersey Medical School students teach neighborhood residents to grow quality fruits and vegetables

Image of James Huynh
James Huynh, president of the New Jersey Medical School Green Club, nurtures plant "starts" indoors before moving them to the garden. He became determined to encourage area residents to eat healthier food and less junk food when he observed an unusually high percentage of overweight patients.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin

‘We encourage the neighborhood residents to take from the gardens but also to grow plants themselves. We provide the little resources they need and teach them how to do it. Some are growing tomatoes.’


 James Huynh, third-year student, New Jersey Medical School


Residents remember it as a once-vacant lot strewn with weeds and trash. But now – from summer through early fall – hearty peppers, tomatoes and watermelons sprout on a 625-square foot parcel on Newark’s Fairmount Avenue.  

Students from Rutgers’ New Jersey Medical School have turned the former eyesore into a neighborhood treasure, sparking a new sense of community around it.

“Many of these residents had not seen fresh tomatoes or okra before,” says James Huynh, a third-year New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) student, who assumed the lead role in expanding the tiny farm from eight to 20 plant beds when he became president of the NJMS Green Club last year.

What Huynh and approximately 60 Green Club members hoped would happen has occurred. Residents living close by share in picking and consuming the fruits and vegetables and help care for their tiny farm – named in memory of the long-time Newark University Hospital volunteer Minnie Presley. Some are also growing plants on their own properties.

"We encourage residents to take from the gardens but also to grow plants themselves,” says Huynh. “We provide the little resources they need and teach them how to do it. Some are growing tomatoes.”

Huynh became interested in ramping up the bounty from the land – donated years ago to the hospital – shortly after he entered NJMS. Volunteering as an emergency department aide at University Hospital, NJMS’ teaching hospital, he consistently noticed an unusually high percentage of overweight patients.

When Huynh learned that the area’s lower-income residents were frustrated over their difficulty finding affordable, quality fruits and vegetables, he became determined to find a way to encourage them to eat healthier foods and less junk food.

Image of peppers growing in Newark garden
Peppers are among a variety of fruits and vegetables growing in the Minnie L. Presley Memorial Garden begun by New Jersey Medical School students.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin

“I’ve been gardening and cooking since I was a kid,” said Huynh, who grew up in Matawan, where he created the family’s fruit and vegetable garden. “I thought I could teach them about nutrition so they could grow their own fruits and vegetables. Really all the plants require is some attention.”

Huynh was so intent on moving the project forward, that before the new plant beds were built, he grew fruit and produce “starts” in pots in his dorm room, his sleep frequently interrupted by the nourishing light he gave them at night.

NJMS students have helped some of the nearby residents gain a stronger understanding of how fruits and vegetables contribute to better health and nutrition. Tim Hopkins, a Fairmount Avenue resident, says he's been helped significantly.

“I try to stay on a low-sodium diet,” says Hopkins, who estimates that 30 neighbors are benefiting. “The peppers, tomatoes and okra help me keep the sodium down.”

Minnie Presley sign
New Jersey Medical School's Green Club expanded the garden, named for the late Newark University Hospital volunteer, from eight to 20 plant beds in the past year.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin

Until the residents began helping maintain the tract, Green Club volunteers fertilized, irrigated and cared for the land. During cold snaps last winter, Huynh often ran from his nearby dormitory to cover up the more delicate plants. Expenses for soil, seed, tools, fertilizer and wood for the plant beds are reimbursed by a renewable grant from the The Richard Pozen and Ann Silver Pozen Community Scholars Program.

For the 29-year-old Huynh, helping needy families follow a nutritious diet has added fuel to his personal transformation. Until several years ago, attending medical school was not in his future. He was interested in history and studied at Yale, but he then pursued a business venture that appealed because it involved international travel.

While abroad, Huynh noticed youngsters working in factories who had developed lung ailments and others who had cholera, leading him to decide that a career in medicine would be more personally satisfying.

He entered NJMS thinking that he might specialize in neuroscience, emergency room care or trauma care. But that, too, may be changing, perhaps to primary care, given the impact that he and his Green Club colleagues have had.

“To me now, there’s much more to medicine than what is in the hospital,” he says. “I’ve become much more interested in helping people outside the hospital live better lives."