It was a beautiful mid-July morning, with a light breeze to cool the sun beaming down on Circle Brook Farm. The LocalShare team is prepared to glean eggplant with a group of 20 students, ages 10-13, and Elysia (Ochs) Caraballo, Director of Community Schools, and another member of the Merriam Ave Elementary School community in Newton, with the intention of bringing some of the yield to the Free Produce Market that will be taking place at the school that afternoon, just 5 miles away from the farm.

“It’s good you’re out here early — to beat the heat” says John Krueger, owner and operator of the 80-acre, certified organic farm in Andover. He and his crew have already been hard at work for hours. John has been managing farms in northwest NJ for over 25 years, fostering a passion for organic farming as a way to protect the environment and build the health of the community. Part of Circle Brook Farm’s mission is to share the surplus to ensure healthy, nutrient-dense food for the well-being of all members of the community, which has made them a key farm partner for LocalShare since the program’s inception in 2012.

When the students arrive at the farm, they file off the bus, looking around in wonder, excitement, and a bit of confusion – marveling at the sudden realization of how short the bus ride was, and the anticipation of an unexpected adventure right in their backyards. Before embarking into the fields, Christine Parauda, LocalShare Coordinator, goes over the plan and safety guidelines. John then guides the group on an educational farm tour on the way to the eggplant fields. There are rows and rows of flowers, broccoli, peas, and hoop houses of trellised tomatoes and tomatillos. Students identify plants they’ve seen in backyards, parks, or cracks in the sidewalk, and take their guesses for each vegetable row passed. John takes care to point out a favorable “weed” called purslane, that is a healthy, edible succulent growing well due to the hot, dry conditions the area has been experiencing. The students ask thoughtful questions about which plants grow well together, and learn about tomato-basil companion planting.

Soon after greeting a field of sprawling melon vines came the vast eggplant beds. Shannon, LocalShare Gleaning Program Assistant, already coordinated with the Circle Brook Farm crew, and knows exactly where to direct everyone. John and Christine demonstrate how to respectfully treat the plants to avoid their spiked stems and how to properly harvest. Students then break into teams of 2 or 3 with clippers and crates to begin inspecting the row. Alongside the LocalShare team, they carefully clip and collect a few fruits from each plant.

Some students marveled at the ability to grow so much food for others, and imagined the possibility of fulfilling that role one day – “I want to grow this much food and feed everyone I know!” A few students enjoyed the activity so much they asked “how old do I have to be to work here?” Others felt challenged, and spoke to how difficult it must be to work outside in hot, dry conditions every day. Despite the difficulty, one shared motivation by the beautiful ingredients and expressed an interest in cooking the food “into a big meal for everyone!”

As the gleaning adventure wrapped up, the students helped weigh and load up the crates into the van. The students used their quick multiplication skills to calculate that about 275 pounds of organic eggplant were gleaned that morning. A sense of accomplishment and gratitude encompassed the group, and all left feeling the satisfaction of a job well done.

In addition to the gleaned produce, Circle Brook Farm consistently donates their market surplus to LocalShare, providing a steady source of nutrient diversity to the markets and other produce distributions. The LocalShare team brings it all to nearby cooler space, making sure to rotate “first in, first out” produce, and allocate some boxes for other upcoming markets and distributions. Before long, the VeggieVan is sufficiently stocked for Merriam Ave’s estimated 50 families, and departs for the market at the school.

Upon arrival, the tables are already set up and there are volunteers waiting to help unload. Lauren Sprich from NJSNAP-ED is there with an intern from St. Elizabeth’s college Foods and Nutrition Program, preparing to hand out reusable bags, with bilingual nutrition information and recipes for some of the produce being distributed, as planned prior to the market. Once market-goers start lining up, they are asked how many people are in their household – which helps inform the participating organizations of how many people are being reached at each market and what the demand is at each location.

All market attendees are grateful for the bounty being shared. The sweet smell of basil fills the air as they make their choices on the way down the display of offerings from boxes packed with eggplant, lettuce, kales, collards, kohlrabi, eggs, snap peas, potatoes, onions, yams, eggs, herbs, corn, cucumbers, squashes, carrots, swiss chard, cauliflower, and more.

The students that had shared interest in creating a meal with the fruits of their labor came to the market to receive enough eggplant to cook for their family members. Other students came by as well, eager to show their family how they had helped – “I remember this one!” pointing to a specific, odd-shaped fruit they had harvested that morning.

By the market’s close at 1pm, the tables were bare – save two lonely crates of lettuce. Through this continued community collaboration, 650 pounds of produce and 60 dozen eggs were distributed to the 81 attending guests, to serve a household total of 311 people in the Merriam Ave Elementary School community on July 14.

Many thanks to John Krueger and his crew at Circle Brook Farm for their steadfast hard work and generosity; to the Merriam Ave Elementary School community and students, for sharing their time, effort, and curiosity with LocalShare; to NJSNAP-ED and the Sussex County Hunger Coalition, for being incredible partners in advocating for healthy food for all; to the other donors to the market, Snoep Winkel for the eggs, and Edible Gardens for the herbs and butter lettuce; and to the market attendees, who are always brave, kind, and open-minded. Through the combined efforts of everyone involved, we will continue to work together to strive towards a more nutrient-secure community – where all people will know exactly where their next meal is coming from, and that it will be healthy and nutritious, as well.

 

You can find a schedule of Free Produce Markets and upcoming Gleanings on the LocalShareNJ app, or on the LocalShare website calendar.

 

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