About 40 Jersey City kids from the Team Walker program took a trip to a farm in Pittstown this summer to help harvest produce to bring back and give away.
“We’ve been partnering with Team Walker for the last six or seven years,” said Paillex, the founder and chief executive officer of America’s Grow-a-Row.
Funded partly through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the program is designed to provide an educational experience for kids as well as provide outdoor activity for them in the country.
Each year the program starts off in January with an educational curriculum focused on healthy eating habits and agriculture, he said. The kids come to the farm to plant and cultivate, and later they return to harvest 18 to 20 varieties of produce.
“They planted string beans a few months ago, and then came back,” he said.
The food is not just for families of kids, but also for the community and is given away at a free market for those who qualify.
“We hope this becomes a life-changing experience,” he said.
In 2016 – using more than 9,000 volunteers, the farms distributed 1.2 million pounds of produce to food banks and other institutions
“The kids came in June to our 288 acres of family farms,” he said. “We do not apply for state or federal funding, but receive donations.”
Started with a garden
This whole thing started back in 2002 when he and his daughter planted a garden on a small plot of land and had extra produce they decided to give away. He and his daughter Kyra, who was four years old at the time, cultivated the garden and donated about $3,000 worth, or 120 pounds, of produce that year.
The Flemington Food Pantry was in dire need of fresh produce and requested any gardeners to donate excess produce. From these humble beginnings, Grow-a-Row became an organization that has donated over 6 million pounds of produce through the active participation of more than 7,000 volunteers
“After that first experience we saw a need,” he said.
From then on, the whole affair took over his life, and grew in proportion.
About seven years ago, he and Jerry Walker – founder of Team Walker – were attending a New Jersey Heroes event and started to talk about Walker’s kids making the trip to Pittstown.
The program involved about 40 kids, and started off with classroom time where kids were taught about different foods, and each subsequent month, built on that education element, until the students graduated the program in June. At this point, they took their first trip to Pittstown to plant, and later in the summer came back.
He said there is a paradox in that the poorest people are often suffering from childhood obesity. This is partly due to the kinds of foods available in poor neighborhood. Many cheap foods have excess carbohydrates and are fattening, and diabetes has become an epidemic
“Getting healthy food in low income areas such as the inner cities is a challenge,” he said. “Many can’t afford fresh vegetables.”
Many also have not experienced healthy eating habits, and so the Grow-a-Row experience may put many of these kids on a healthy path in life.
Generating healthy food
The two farms used in the program have allowed them to deliver food throughout the state of New Jersey to food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, Free Farm Market, programs, faith-based pantries, and more.
“At America’s Grow-a-Row, in order to build a sustainable culture of health, we need to improve the access of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables to those individuals who are faced with food insecurity,” said Paillex. “In addition, we need to make healthy eating a priority, and that is done through our year-long curriculum, such as the Kids Farm Day program that took place today at our farm with the youth from Jersey City.
Sallie George, program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the program was one of New Jersey’s more innovative answers combating the problems facing people in regards to food.
“We are always looking for partners across the state and this program works for us,” she said. “This is our second grant to this program. We gave a grant to them in 2012 as well. We want New Jersey to be a place where everybody has a healthy life, rich or poor, and we want people to have healthy choices.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.