By Hayley Slusser
The New Brunswick Community Farmers Market is back for the 2021 season to bring local residents fresh, affordable produce grown locally by New Jersey farmers.
The market, which operates three days a week at two locations, first opened in 2009 and is run by a partnership between the City of New Brunswick, Rutgers University and Johnson & Johnson.
“The market really came to be as a result of the Great Recession of 2008 / 2009, and [the] recognition that more and more people in the area were experiencing food insecurity — in particular, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, was challenging,” said Lauren Errickson, a senior program administrator at Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
Errickson, who is entering her sixth season at the market, said the goal of the program is not only to provide options for fruits and vegetables, but to teach the community about the importance of healthy lifestyles.
The participating farms have changed over the years, but Errickson said all of them provide fresh produce and share the market’s goal of increasing accessibility to healthy food options.
“We basically want to balance the needs of the farmer — they’re in this as a business, they need to be able to make money coming to the market — but we also want to keep the food affordable enough that people are able to buy the food at a good price,” she said.
To help make the produce more accessible, visitors can purchase produce using benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Women, Infants and Children checks and the Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Those who shop using benefits are also eligible for up to $10 worth of additional produce.
“Now we’ve expanded to partner with the Garden State Good Food Network, and they are helping to support that SNAP doubling program with their Good Food Bucks project,” Errickson said.
Although it does fluctuate, Errickson said anywhere from 50% to 75% of the market’s total sales come from some form of food assistance benefits.
To address economic challenges and food insecurity stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the market continued its operations in 2020 with additional safety protocols like hand washing and social distancing. Errickson said although attendance went down in 2020, the market’s sales actually increased.
Programs at the New Brunswick Community Farmers Market go beyond selling fruits and vegetables. At its Jones Avenue location, the market has a community garden, where residents can rent plots of land and grow their own produce, herbs and flowers.
Mark Oshinskie, the community garden coordinator, is responsible for procuring gardening supplies, managing the common areas and helping newcomers learn about how to care for their own garden.
“I’ll welcome anybody who’s even a beginning gardener, who knows nothing at all about gardening. Every year we have some people that don’t know the first thing, and of course, my job is easier if everyone’s an expert, but not everyone is an expert,” he said. “It’s nice to see someone who’s never gardened before get enthusiastic about succeeding.”
The majority of gardeners grow produce for themselves and their families, along with other plants such as marigolds, Oshinskie said. Errickson said that since many residents are from Latin American countries, many of them plant items that are native to those countries but not commonly found in American grocery stores.
Although the produce is beneficial, Oshinskie said he thinks the most important part of the garden is the sense of community it brings to New Brunswick residents.
“[The garden] gets people together with their other family members — mothers and fathers bring their kids along and they garden as a team, which is a really nice thing to see,” he said.
After talking to many of the gardeners, Oshinskie said he learned that many of New Brunswick’s immigrant families feel the garden is an opportunity for them to get to know their neighbors, since they otherwise feel disconnected from the rest of the community.
Other community-oriented initiatives at the market include the youth educational program, which began in-person activities in 2019 through a partnership between the Rutgers Nutritional Sciences Department, the Rutgers Cooperative Extension 4-H Department and the market.
“What we were putting together were creative arts-based activities that would help children and families learn about how to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, why it’s beneficial, how to get more physical activity into their day and how that can help with health outcomes down the road,” Errickson said.
The market has also expanded to provide opportunities for local vendors to sell their goods, with this year’s sellers including a soap maker, plant vendors and stalls selling baked goods.
From now until the end of the 2021 season in October, Errickson said she is looking forward to seeing the New Brunswick community bounce back and take advantage of all the market has to offer.
“This year I think I’m very excited to see more people returning to the market,” Errickson said. “Seeing more families coming back, bringing more of the kids back on-site [and] seeing more of the grandparents coming back on-site as we emerge from the pandemic.”The market is run by the City of New Brunswick, Rutgers University and Johnson & Johnson.