Farmers Against Hunger program celebrates 20 years
BORDENTOWN— March 18 marked a major milestone for the New Jersey Agricultural Society’s Farmers Against Hunger Program, when those who work with the New Jersey Agricultural Society and invited guests celebrated the program’s 20th anniversary at the Ag Society’s annual Gala at Hamilton Manor off Route 130 in Mercer County.
Yet plenty of people around the Garden State can tell you the need for programs like Farmers Against Hunger has never been greater.
With an estimated one in four children in the nation and in New Jersey growing up in households that meet federal income definitions for poverty, the need for volunteers for the program and a new or gently used produce truck or two is great, said executive director Kristina Guttadora.
Guttardora, raised in Pottstown, Pa., is a 1999 plant science graduate from Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
She then got a masters degree in agricultural education from the University of North Carolina and spent a decade teaching agricultural education in Freehold Township Regional Schools before coming to the Ag Society five years ago.
“Once I took this job, I was able to really expand our gleaning program,” Guttadora relates, adding, “sometimes the vegetables are perfect, sometimes they’re slightly blemished, or its fruit that has dropped off trees, but we’ll go to farms with a team of volunteers and pick up excess produce.”
With the help of fellow staffers who work directly with the Farmers Against Hunger Program, Elyse Yerrapathruni, who works with farmers to schedule gleanings, and Brian Stumfels, who works with volunteers and truck drivers to coordinate timely transport of fresh produce to food banks, Guttadora and her team were able to conduct 83 gleanings in 2015 during the 26-week growing season.
Asked if there is a time of year when need for food is most pronounced at food banks, Guttadora said the need for many families and individuals is year-round.
“We work with 75 different community organizations, food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, we don’t give out produce to individuals, we give out to the organizations,” she said, using four distribution sites: Browns Mills, Trenton, Camden and Mount Holly. Produce also gets to the Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, Union County, via a drop-off point in Bound Brook, Somerset County.
Aside from overseeing the Farmers Against Hunger project, the Ag Society also oversees Learning through Gardening program for public school children and a Leadership Development Program for younger or older farmers.
“We have people in their 50’s involved in the leadership development program,” Guttadora said, adding the Farmers Against Hunger program took a leap forward after receiving a $25,000 grant from the Bonner Foundation, which enabled staff to purchase refrigerator trucks with auto lifts to transport fresh produce to distribution points.
“Last year, in 2015, we had a record 1.4 million pounds of fresh produce delivered and distributed,” Guttadora said, “because even in your wealthier communities and counties, there are people who are less fortunate. The food pantry in Allentown where I live is serving the elderly and people who’ve lost their jobs.”
In mid-January, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bunch of bills into law, three of which pertain to the Ag Society and its operations. One designates the third week of September as “New Jersey Gleaning Week,” another designates the third Wednesday of September as “Farmers Against Hunger Day,” and the third directs the NJ Dept. of Agriculture to publicize Gleaning Week and Farmers Against Hunger Day on its website.
So what does Guttadora get out of her “good karma” job?
“Thanks to my years teaching high school, I’ve stayed connected with other teachers, and we’ve been able to get more people involved in Farmers Against Hunger and FFA groups,” she said.
“It’s satisfying to know we’re distributing a product that otherwise would go to waste. What impresses me most are these farmers who work so hard all week and then take time to make gleanings happen, they still take time to help load our trucks. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and there’s a lot of produce that’s out there,” she said, “and we still really need volunteers on call, able to respond on relatively short notice.
On a good day, with a team of volunteers, we can recover 10,000 pounds of produce in two hours.
“There could be 100,000 pounds of produce still out there,” she said, “so for us, the challenges are staffing, trucks, funding for the trucks and flexible volunteers.”