Innovative Startup to Bring Nutrition, Jobs to South Jersey Food Desert

He earned a culinary degree, trained in France, owned four restaurants, and has appeared on the Food Network 10 times, but Fredric Byarm has never forgotten his roots. A Camden, New Jersey, native, Byarm plans to open a farm and marketplace to bring nutrition, jobs, and career training to his hometown. Invincible City Farms (ICF), part farm and part retail market, is slated to open in Camden sometime in 2019.

Growth for Camden

ICF is not the only new business coming to the city of Camden. The Camden Waterfront, where ICF will grow organic fruits and vegetables on a 20-acre plot of land, is currently undergoing a $1 billion overhaul, including the construction of the new American Water headquarters. Several new restaurants and housing units are also headed to the Waterfront. Byarm expects the new community model will help bring additional business to ICF once it opens.

Invincible City Farms, Christina Carrell, Jersey Bites
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Byarm envisions ICF as an oasis in a city with limited food access. He remembers getting on a public bus to go grocery shopping as a child and believes no one should have to resort to out-of-town travel to obtain their food. “Even as a kid, it felt weird to catch a bus to go grocery shopping,” he recalls. “It didn’t seem right.” Byarm’s team will sell the produce they grow to Camden residents at a low price point and also distribute it to Camden’s 130 corner convenience stores. Because Camden is classified as a food desert—an area lacking access to wholesome foods—Byarm’s hope is that the new farm will help make healthy food accessible to Camden residents.

The Benefits of ICF

Although Camden is already home to a number of food-related charities, ICF will offer something many of Camden’s food banks and soup kitchens are lacking: nutrition. The products available at most food-related charities are often highly processed. “We feed the most vulnerable food that doesn’t benefit them on a nutritional basis,” Byarm says, stressing that ICF will offer nutritious, whole foods.

Unlike most other food banks and soup kitchens, ICF will also offer employment and education. “Not everyone will go to a soup kitchen,” Byarm explains. When a person has to walk into a charity for free food, they experience something Byarm calls a “transaction of dignity,” which he describes as exchanging their self-worth for a bite to eat. At ICF, the entrepreneur hopes to create an environment where people can pay their own way, providing about 100 jobs in food production and distribution. “We don’t want our employees to stay on the farm. We want to help support them, help grow them in their workplace skills,” Byarm says. Wages will start around $14 per hour and ICF will provide valuable job skills and career development training employees can use once they move on from the company.

Invincible City Farms, Christina Carrell, Jersey Bites
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As a professional chef, Byarm first conceived of the idea for ICF while working in farm-to-table style restaurants at the Jersey shore and in Vermont. Byarm lived in Vermont for nine years, and during that time familiarized himself with organic farming methods. Once he closed his fourth restaurant, Byarm worked at hospitals and volunteered for various non-profit organizations. Over time, Byarm’s interest shifted from “feeding the affluent” to “feeding people who didn’t have food at all.”

Once he moved back to Camden, Byarm started learning about the various community farms and urban gardens in Philadelphia. Even though a few similar places exist in the nation—notably in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Baltimore—ICF is unique in that it will not rely solely on donations to operate. Instead, Byarm will employ a hybrid model that combines elements of a not-for-profit organization with a for-profit retail model. The retail side of the marketplace, according to Byarm, will be key to the marketplace’s sustainability.

A Green Approach

ICF will bring nutrition and jobs to the people of Camden, but it will also be kind to the planet. Byarm’s team will employ an eco-friendly approach to business management that will cut down on food waste. When individual consumers save their food waste as compost, they can return it to the farm in exchange for a coupon to buy more food. “They can turn a pound of green compost into a pound of fresh fruits and vegetables,” he explains. Byarm’s team will also pick up unused fresh fruits and vegetables from the corner stores that will sell his products. The compost will then be used as fertilizer for the crops ICF grows.

Beyond Access

With all his experience in the culinary world, Byarm finds feeding underprivileged populations “absolutely more challenging” than operating high-end restaurants. He anticipates that marketing the new business to the people of Camden will be one of ICF’s biggest hurdles. “The elimination of a food desert is bigger than just food access,” Byarm asserts. To truly eliminate a food desert, an organization like ICF will need to provide food education, too. Many Camden residents associate words like “nutrition” and “organic” with affluence. While working for a neighborhood center in Camden, Byarm once overheard a young girl exclaim, “Healthy food? That’s for white people.” He hopes to disprove the notion that nutritional food is only for people of certain races or socioeconomic backgrounds. Since many people in food deserts are inexperienced in cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables, ICF will provide recipes and cooking classes, so residents can learn how to eat healthy and to cook the produce once it’s accessible to them.

Byarm insists his aim is not to give the city a trickle-down economic boost, but rather to provide a “direct impact on the everyday Camden resident,” but ICF could face a challenge in marketing the business to potential donors outside the city. “There’s this idea that nothing good ever comes from Camden,” Byarm explains. Because of his success, people are often shocked Byarm grew up in Camden. Many outsiders are unwilling to invest in the project because of the negative associations with the city in the collective psyche. Byarm hopes to help people outside the city empathize with the hardships that plague families residing in food deserts. He wants people to try and imagine what it “feels like to take the taxi cab to the grocery store” and strives to relate that experience to people who have never had to live in a food desert.  

A Look to the Future

If it’s successful, ICF could become a model for other cities facing a crisis of food access. This issue disproportionately affects people of color in low-income communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 23.5 million people reside in food deserts. With millions of people unable to access fruits and vegetables, a public health crisis could continue, as food deserts are associated with higher rates of preventable diseases and chronic illness. When we reach out to help underserved communities, we are helping create a healthier nation with lower healthcare costs for everyone.

Want to help? Donate to Invincible City Farms here.