The Farm That's Growing Healthier Generations

Nov 20, 2017, 10:12 AM, Posted by Jasmine Hall Ratliff

Over a million New Jerseyans don’t know where their next meal will come from. A nonprofit farm seeks to change that by working with schools, advocacy groups, distributors and more to bring over a million pounds of fresh produce to low-income communities while educating future generations about healthy eating.

Fourteen-year-old Destiny remembers the spring day when she and a bunch of other kids planted rows of string bean seeds in the dark, loamy earth.

“There was nothing there,” she says, pointing at the dense green plants whose abundant leaves now shelter countless sweet, crunchy pods.

Today, Destiny is back here—with a couple dozen other children—to harvest the beans and bring them home for dinner. Later, the children will add freshly picked nectarines, cucumbers, and green peppers to their goodie bags. They’ll also go home with recipes for preparing those foods.

It’s one in a series of Kids Farm Days at America’s Grow-a-Row, a nonprofit farm in Pittstown, Hunterdon County, N.J., that provides fresh produce to people in underserved communities, as well as hands-on education to kids about healthy eating.

Healthy eating is key to healthy living, yet nearly 1 million New Jerseyans, including 340,000 children, struggle with food insecurity—meaning they’re not always sure where their next meal is coming from.

These families aren’t getting what they need to be healthy. Especially for young children, a regular diet of nutritious foods is critical to putting them on the path for a lifetime of good health.

But without access to healthy, affordable foods, people can’t always make healthy choices for themselves and their families. If cost is an issue, they’re likely to wind up buying foods that are cheap and filling, but low in nutritional value. Or, if families live in a “food desert” that doesn’t have a decent supermarket, they may be stuck with what’s available at the neighborhood corner store or nearby fast-food restaurants.

Grow-a-Row helps create better choices in two ways: first, by teaching children how to make good eating choices; and, second, by increasing access to healthy foods in low-income communities, which helps to create the choices that people need to achieve and maintain good health.

Healthy eating is key to healthy living, yet nearly 1 million New Jerseyans, including 340,000 children, struggle with food insecurity—meaning they’re not always sure where their next meal is coming from.

Grow-a-Row started in 2002 with a single plot of land that delivered 120 pounds of produce to the Flemington Food Pantry. Fifteen years later, with support from RWJF, the organization donates 1.2 million pounds annually to food banks, local relief organizations, farmers’ markets, and schools in low-income communities—assisted by more than 7,100 volunteers. In addition to growing its own fresh fruit and vegetables, Grow-a-Row collects surplus food from grocery stores and takes it to area food banks to help feed more people instead of it going to waste.

When the growing season ends, classroom education begins. From January to June, Grow-a-Row offers workshops and assemblies in schools to teach children and youth about food insecurity, healthy eating, and agriculture. At the farm, they get an on-the-ground education:  They see where food comes from, help to harvest it, taste it, learn about its nutritional value, and even try out some simple recipes in the Grow-a-Row kitchen. Best of all, they get to bring home a bag of produce for their families, as well as harvest for others in need.

Chip Paillex, the founder and president of America’s Grow-a-Row, believes that knowledge is key to good health. During the recent Kids Farm Day event with children from Jersey City’s Team Walker program, Paillex explained that string bean plants are grown beneath black plastic tarps to protect them from the sun while keeping the soil warm and moist and reducing weeds. Then Julie Rusin, Grow-a-Row’s programming director, showed the children how to harvest the beans, lifting the leaves of the plants to reveal the long, skinny pods dangling beneath and gently snapping them off.

“My mom can boil these for dinner!” Collin, who looked to be 7 or 8, grinned as he bent to pick more beans. Prompted to eat one raw, though, he made a face, and declared that he preferred them cooked.

Brianna, 13, who also helped plant the beans earlier this year, noted that sometimes kids will say they don’t like a vegetable—like a cucumber or a pepper—until they try it. “It’s good to try new things,” she said. That’s the kind of mindset that Paillex wants to foster.

While Paillex and Rusin and their team of volunteers engaged the Team Walker kids in harvesting, their colleagues in another field prepared to truck nearly 28,000 pounds of cabbages to City Harvest in New York.

All part of a day’s work.

Grow-a-Row shows how combatting food insecurity requires partnership and collaboration with schools, hunger advocacy groups, food distributors and merchants, and other nonprofits.  It also requires a broad approach to increasing both public awareness and education around healthy eating, as well as access to healthy, affordable food.

Food insecurity is a problem that won’t go away overnight. But Grow-a-Row’s work shows that we can create more and better choices for healthy eating in low-income communities.

Learn more about how the Foundation is improving health in its home state of New Jersey.

about the author

Jasmine Hall Ratliff / RWJF

Jasmine Hall Ratliff, who joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2008, brings her programmatic and grant management expertise to the Foundation’s efforts to create healthy places and practices that will result in achieving a healthy weight for all children. Read her full bio.