5 Tips From Sustainable Jersey’s Food Actions

October 18, 2012

Despite being the most urbanized and densely populated state in the United States, New Jersey communities are taking important steps to keep the garden in the garden state.  Although New Jersey’s farm base is shrinking, municipalities are making changes to assure the long-term viability of local food systems that support the growing, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food and vegetative wastes.

5 Tips for Municipalities from Sustainable Jersey’s Food Actions

1. Start a Community Garden and Share Your Bounty

If you have ever been involved in a community garden, you know that gardens build community connections that move beyond the garden fence.  The gardens serve to teach lessons as simple as “where our food comes from” to complex lessons on ecology, resource management, nutrition and healthy lifestyles.  Even better, many community gardens are growing fresh produce for food banks and shelters.

Woodbridge Community Garden

To date, 59 Sustainable Jersey-certified towns have community gardens.  Within the last two years, the Woodbridge Environmental Commission in conjunction with the Woodbridge Green Team and Woodbridge Community Center developed a community garden.  The goal of the garden is to grow fresh organic food that will be served as healthy food to the less fortunate in the township.  An all-volunteer team plants the zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes.  So far, the Woodbridge Community Garden has donated over 50 pounds of vegetables to food pantries, and the group hopes to provide over 150 additional pounds of food by the end of the year.

Produce from the Woodbridge Community Garden

2. Make Farmers’ Markets Accessible

Two cheers for farmers’ markets that provide fresh food and an opportunity to get to know our local growers. However, access to farmers’ markets is often restricted by lack of transportation and payment methods. Making farmers’ markets more accessible to a larger and more diverse population is just good sense.

To date, 56 Sustainable Jersey-certified towns support farmers’ markets.  To make it more accessible, Maplewood Township (Sustainable Jersey-certified) has its farmers’ market in a municipal parking lot that is next to Springfield Avenue which is the largest commercial corridor.

It’s the busiest street in Maplewood and even better, a New Jersey Transit bus stop is located half a block away. Access to public transportation and the prime location are two of the many reasons that the farmers’ market is thriving.  Also, the farmers at this market accept food stamps and WIC coupons which increase access to healthy food options for the community while simultaneously boosting sales for the farmers.

Maplewood Farmers Market

3. Adopt Ordinances to Support Agriculture

Using municipal planning and zoning powers, communities can enhance food production and access to food while supporting local farms.  Revisions to zoning regulations can include anything from requiring new development to set aside lands for community garden areas, to permitting food gardens in front-yard setbacks, to allowing backyard chickens in residential zones, and to allowing temporary farm stands to operate in commercial zones, close to transit hubs and possibly even in residential zones.

Sustainable Jersey-certified, Jersey City, passed an ordinance in 2011 defining, permitting and zoning for agricultural uses. The ordinance permits community gardening, commercial agriculture, rooftop gardens/raised planters and green roofs.  Mainly, it exempts all of the uses from site plan review and provides minimal standards with regard to setbacks for greenhouses and farm stands.  The Jersey City Land Development Ordinance requires that uses be defined with standards or they are not permitted.  This is an ordinance that can be implemented by many more towns.

4. Start a Buy Fresh/Buy Local Program

With recent food contamination scares, communities are realizing the critical benefits of supporting local food production.  Another significant reason to buy local is to keep food miles to a minimum.  Food miles refer to the distance a food item travels from the farm to your home.  The food miles for items in the grocery store are, on average, 27 times higher than the food miles for goods bought from local sources.  “Buy Local” food programs can be used to support local farms, farm markets, CSAs, grocery stores and restaurants that buy local produce, dairy, meat and wine.

To date, 18 Sustainable Jersey-certified towns have sponsored Buy Fresh/Buy Local programs.  Sustainable Jersey-certified Union Township in Hunterdon County has a Buy Fresh/Buy Local campaign that was originally promoted primarily through word of mouth.  The program expanded to a more formal recommendation to local groups, and finally to a real project whereby local farms, farm stands and produce suppliers were researched and identified by Union Township and then publicized through mentions in the local newspaper, the township website, the environmental commission’s newsletter and a listing of farm stands within the Township for a county Buy Fresh/Buy Local website.  These efforts were implemented at no additional cost to the community.  The success of the current efforts is evident in the amount of local produce and other foods in local supermarkets and the Walmart.

5. Re-Use Food Waste: Start a Curbside Organic Waste Recycling Program

Almost 30 percent of what ends up in the landfill is food scraps and food-soiled paper. Food waste recycling is especially important because it reduces methane (a highly warming gas) production from landfills.  Also, food waste recycling has the potential to create industries in New Jersey that produce soil amendments and result in energy generation. Food waste recycling can reduce costs for businesses, schools and institutions.

Sustainable Jersey-certified Princeton Township has just been awarded a $20,000 Sustainable Jersey grant to support the curbside food to compost program that was launched last year.  The grant will support a campaign, spearheaded by Sustainable Princeton and piloted by the Princeton Township Public Works Department, to expand the town’s award-winning program. Princeton Township is the first town in New Jersey to test curbside food waste collection and it has been very successful. For example, during the pilot phase, over 10 tons of organic material was collected /diverted from a landfill in a two month time period from 192 homes that were participating. Residents fill the bins with food and organic waste and the waste is trucked to a compost facility, where it is turned into nutrient rich soil.  The program will save money for the town due to increased recycling rates and lower trash dumping fees while turning the waste into a usable product.  Currently, 460 Princeton households participate in the program.  Through the grant, Sustainable Princeton aims to increase participation in the curbside organic program to 1,500 or more households over an 18-month period.

We hope more municipalities will focus on implementing food actions.  Local food production systems strengthen the local economy, improve the health of our citizens by providing access to fresh food, help preserve open space and green the local environment, are ecologically sustainable, address global food security issues, sustain traditional local food culture, and promote comprehensive food planning at the community and regional levels.  To read the complete list of the food actions from the Sustainable Jersey certification program, review the complete action list and open the Food Actions link: Sustainable Jersey Actions.

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Sustainable Jersey staff and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog

Throughout the month of October, the Dodge blog will feature blog posts related to food issues and food systems in honor of Food Day 2012.

For a complete archive of our food related articles, please click here. If you are hosting a Food Day event, please let everyone know in the comments section below!

Images courtesy Sustainable Jersey