The State We're In

Serving up greater food equality in the Garden State

Jan 20, 2022

By Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director

Everyone has to eat. But not everyone in New Jersey has equal access to fresh, healthy, nutritious foods.

This state we’re in has many “food deserts,” or communities without places to buy groceries. Food deserts exist mostly in cities where supermarkets are scarce and lower-income households don’t have transportation to shop elsewhere.

This lack of access is often referred to as “food insecurity,” but it could also be called “nutritional insecurity.” The problem isn’t no food at all – it’s a lack of healthy foods. Many food deserts have plenty of fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Lacking fresh foods, many urban residents end up eating a diet of highly processed foods laden with fat, sugar and salt. This can lead to numerous health issues, including obesity and diabetes.

The New Jersey chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, or NOFA-NJ for short, wants to help improve nutritional security, food justice and health in the Garden State.

One project it’s working on, in partnership with New Jersey Conservation Foundation, is opening hundreds of acres of state-owned land to minority and beginning farmers who can’t afford their own land. Another is providing freshly harvested fruits and vegetables to low-income urban residents at affordable prices.

“New Jersey may be the most diverse state in the nation, yet we haven’t really directed much of our resources to developing young farmers and encouraging organic farmers,” noted Nagisa Manabe, the outgoing executive director of NOFA-NJ.

The future of New Jersey’s food system, and how to provide healthy foods for all residents, is the theme of NOFA-NJ’s 32nd annual Winter Conference, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 29 and 30. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the conference will be held online.

The entire first day of the conference will be devoted to food justice and creating better food systems. “I thought the Winter Conference would be a great way to re-introduce NOFA-NJ as an organization that’s really committed to diversity and inclusion issues in our state,” said Manabe.

The first day of the conference opens with an invocation by Chief Vincent Mann, leader of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation in northern New Jersey. Three years ago, Mann started an organic farm on low-cost leased land owned by the nonprofit Foodshed Alliance, with the goal of helping to provide for his people. Mann is now launching a pilot farming project on state Fish & Wildlife land.

Another morning speaker will be Winona LaDuke, founder and director of the organization Honor the Earth, who will talk about the impacts of the climate crisis on farmers, especially Native Americans.

The morning session will also introduce the Farm Share program, which will allow NOFA-NJ to bring Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to urban areas where it currently isn’t available. Under the CSA model, consumers pay farmers before the growing season in exchange for weekly shares of freshly harvested produce during the summer and fall. Under the Farm Share proposal, CSA payments would be subsidized, allowing greater access to healthy foods by qualified urban residents.

Among the afternoon speakers will be Karen Washington, owner of Rise & Root Farm in the Bronx, N.Y., who will speak on “Nourishing Cities in a Changing Climate.” Another is Raj Patel, co-author of the book Inflamed, a study of the lasting impacts of colonialism and discrimination on oppressed groups.

Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, owners and chefs at The Vedge vegan restaurant in Philadelphia, will speak about the growing popularity of plant-based eating and its benefits.

The final first day speakers will be the Honorable Cory Booker, our United States Senator from New Jersey, and Corey Glover, leader of the rock band Living Colour. Their talk, “Food, Justice and the People,” will discuss food insecurity’s impact on New Jersey and the nation, and its impact on agriculture. Senator Booker, a long-time vegan, has co-sponsored a Senate bill to provide reparations to farmers of color who have been illegally and unjustly deprived of access to land.

The first day will conclude with a screening of the film “Voices from the Barrens – Native People, Blueberries and Sovereignty,” which documents the wild blueberry harvest of the Wabanaki People from the United States and Canada.

The second day of the conference centers on the practical issues of growing organic crops in New Jersey, including the best trees and shrubs to plant on farms and in home gardens for perennial harvests of nuts and berries.

“If you eat food, you’re going to get something out of this conference,” said Devin Cornia, the incoming executive director of NOFA-NJ. “You’re going to get excited, you’re going to get motivated, you’re going to get hands-on knowledge of what you can do on your own property or in your own garden.”

The cost of the conference is $35 for NOFA-NJ members and $50 for non-members. To encourage future organic farmers, scholarships for free admission are offered to students and beginning farmers. For more information and to register, visit the NOFA-NJ website at https://nofanj.org/winter-conference-the-future-of-new-jerseys-local-food-system-2022/. All sessions will be recorded, so registrants have the option of watching at a future date.

Strengthening New Jersey’s local food system in the face of climate change, and making it more equitable for all New Jerseyans, is vitally important for our state’s health and well-being. Eating local reduces air pollution created by transporting food long distances, and sustainable organic farming methods help slow down climate change by storing carbon in soils and plants.

To see a map of New Jersey’s “food deserts,” go to https://njdca.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=cd59d206f39c40a691d6ba38598134fb.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.