New Jersey residents are fortunate to have a wide variety of local agricultural products at their fingertips.
The Garden State is a national top-10 producer of 11 fruits and vegetables, and agri-food is the third-largest industry in the state’s economy. Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, says the state is a national leader in the local foods movement for three reasons – experience, expertise and energy.
He explains, “New Jersey and its truck-farming roots have been in the produce business for decades, and it’s well-supported by careers in science and innovation by Rutgers Cooperative Extension faculty and ag agents. This has created an energy in these farm families who greet each new growing season with enthusiasm.”
These New Jersey farm families’ production of top-quality foods, coupled with the growing population of New Jersey residents who prefer locally grown ingredients, creates a unique opportunity to connect farmers with consumers. That’s exactly what Jersey Fresh is designed to do.
Launched in 1984, Jersey Fresh is an advertising, promotional and quality-grading program that helps farmers inform consumers about the availability and variety of fruits and vegetables grown in New Jersey. The organization’s hard work has paid off – consumers are demanding locally grown New Jersey produce now more than ever, and the Jersey Fresh logo lets them know they are getting the highest-quality produce available.
The Jersey Fresh website, www.JerseyFresh.nj.gov, is packed with useful information for those looking for fresh, local produce. You’ll find pick-your-own farms, farmers markets, agritourism Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), products made with Jersey Fresh produce and more – all stamped with Jersey Fresh’s seal of approval, guaranteeing the highest quality.
Hundreds of restaurants across the state are using Jersey Fresh produce on their menus. One example, the Crab’s Claw Inn in Lavallette, goes all out with its annual fall Jersey Fresh dinner as well as including Jersey Fresh products on its menu year round.
“We use all Jersey Fresh produce, seafood, meats, cheeses, wines – it’s totally, 100 percent New Jersey,” says manager Becky Christensen, who has worked at the restaurant since it opened 34 years ago.
For families wanting to cook with Jersey Fresh produce in their homes, farmers markets, roadside stands and CSAs are a great way to find fruits and vegetables.
“In a time when food often travels thousands of miles before a consumer touches it, buying locally makes more sense,” says Alan Weinberg, owner of Alan’s Orchard in Westfield.
Local farmers aren’t just selling their produce to restaurants and families. It’s also being used to feed school children. Because New Jersey is one of three states in which the federal school nutrition programs are administered through the Department of Agriculture, it’s easy for schools to work with local farmers to get fresh, local produce on their lunch and breakfast menus.
“With new lunch meal regulations that require more fruits and vegetables to be on lunch menus, it’s an excellent time for schools to make a step to support the farm-to-school initiative,” says Rose Tricario, Division of Food and Nutrition Director for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. “And working with local farmers to teach children where their food comes from in addition to what they should have in their diets.”
Because fruits and vegetables are so delicate and easily damaged, there is always a portion of a farmer’s crop that is still fresh, nutritious and delicious, but is unmarketable because of its size or a small blemish or bruise. This common problem led to the creation of Farmers Against Hunger, a non-profit organization that works with 50 farmers around the state to donate produce to feeding organizations who share it with their clients, who otherwise might not have access to local produce.
“We serve many elderly people who can’t always leave their homes to get fresh produce, working families and single parents,” says Kristina Guttadora, Farmers Against Hunger program director and New Jersey Agricultural Society executive director. “We’re a bridge between food that might go to waste and food insecurity.”
Guttadora says local farmers make it a point to take time out of their busy days to make sure their crops get to people who need them.
“These are people who put all this love and attention into their crops, and they don’t want to see it go to waste,” she says. “People should support their local farmers – they’re growing our food and giving back to the community.”