By Beth Feehan, Director of the NJ Farm to School Network & Deb Bentzel, Mid-Atlantic Regional Lead of the National Farm to School Network
It’s said that New Jersey’s nickname of the “Garden State” came into being as far back as 1876, when Camden resident Abraham Browning used the phrase to describe his home state, whose bountiful agricultural products were supplying not just New Jersey, but also Pennsylvania and New York. Over the past 138 years, New Jersey remains the “Garden State,” boasting over 9,000 farms spread across 715,000 acres. However, like farming in most states, New Jersey has faced challenges remaining economically viable in the face of an increasingly nationalized and globalized food system. Enter farm to school.
Farm to school advocacy efforts in New Jersey began in 2008 with a stakeholder meeting kick off at Fernbrook Farms in Chesterfield. At the time, the term “farm to school” in New Jersey was not commonly used, despite many groups working on school garden education in varying communities. As the years progressed, more groups joined in the discussion to engage the agriculture community in the state, including the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the New Jersey Farm Bureau and state legislators. This cross-sector collaboration has now resulted in an amazing legislative effort designed to put the farm back on the cafeteria tray, and to further support the three pillars of farm to school: procurement, school gardening, and education.
New Jersey's Acting Governor, Kim Guadagno, signed five farm to school bills into law at a ceremony at Terhune Orchards in central Jersey on August 25th, 2014. Witnesses to the signing included the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture, New Jersey Farm Bureau, state legislators, representatives from the Department of Education and the New Jersey Farm to School Network.
On Monday, August 25, 2014, New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno signed into law five new actions to support farm to school across the state. These new laws will help advance farm to school practices through:
Promotion and recognition initiatives: The New Jersey Department of Agriculture will now have more dedicated space to promote farm to school and success stories on their website and will create an annual farm to school awards program designed to recognize school meal programs that have taken their food purchasing to the next level by purchasing locally grown foods in meals, and by educating students about the value and benefits to eating Jersey Fresh.
Local food procurement support: Development of an online farm to school clearing house will help connect New Jersey school food buyers to farmers, foods banks, and other suppliers in order to facilitate local food sourcing and relationship-building among those that grow healthy foods in the state, and those that serve it to the state’s K-12 population.
Enhanced funding: New Jersey taxpayers may now voluntarily contribute funds to the “New Jersey Farm to School and School Garden Fund” via a check box on their yearly income tax returns.
Additionally, the state Department of Agriculture is not permitted to accept private donations for farm to school.
We applaud a truly bi-partisan effort in which legislators were able to intrinsically understand the future benefits of farm to school and how support at the statewide policy level would help develop youth into healthy, happy, educated consumers, supporting the state’s talented and dedicated farmers and their communities and preserving agriculture as the industry of which New Jersey is most proud.
A cohort of farm to school advocates from across New Jersey as well as the National Farm to School Network's Mid-Atlantic Regional Lead, approved of the bill signing as is evident by their smiles.
From left to right: Back row - Meredith Taylor (NJ Farm to School Network Board Member), Larry Kuser (NJ Farm to School Network Advisory Board Member); Front row - Deb Bentzel (Mid-Atlantic Regional Lead for National Farm to School Network), Sheri Kurdakul (NJ Farm to School Network Marketing Director), Beth Feehan (NJ Farm to School Network Executive Director) and Chris Cirkus (NJ Farm to School Network Programs Director).
If you are interested in finding out what your state has done to support farm to school through legislative efforts, check out NFSN's State Farm to School Legislative Survey 2002-2013, which was released earlier this year. Since 2014 has been a busy year for New Jersey and other states, we plan to update this survey next year to include activity from 2014. If you know of farm to school policy efforts underway in your state, please contact NFSN's Policy and Strategic Partnerships Director, Helen Dombalis.