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Featured Mini-Grantee: Farms in the Heights

2019-02-04T11:47:51-05:00February 4th, 2019|

A major component of health is food, and that’s why several of our 2018 mini-grantees involve urban farms and gardeners. Farms in the Heights (FITH) is a well-established group that is dedicated to making sure everyone has access to fresh, locally-sourced food. Their commitment to this important mission is one of  the reasons the Partnership chose to award FITH with a 2018 mini-grant. They were asked the same five question as all the other 2018 mini-grantees, and their answers can be found here:

What does building a culture of health mean to you?
FITH’s culture of health building takes place primarily at the Riverview Farmers Market (RFM) in Jersey City Heights. For Farms in the Heights (FITH), a culture of health is one in which everyone understands what healthy living is and has the tools we need for healthy living regardless of our socio-economic status: Having access to affordable healthy food choices is one of the most important tools. By supporting local farms, promoting locally grown and produced foods, offering nutrition education programs and materials, and implementing broad outreach for the SNAP and matching grant programs, and facilitating food donations to the neighborhood food bank, FITH promotes access to healthy food choices. These core Farmers Market activities, facilitating access to healthy food choices, education and outreach, and commitment to affordability, are expanded through additional FITH programs and activities that are part of the larger ecosystem and infrastructure of healthy living in Jersey City and the state. FITH collaborates with the Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), other city and state departments, and community groups to deepen our work in building a healthy culture in the Heights. FITH’s collaborations include programs for exercise and nutrition, stretching SNAP dollars through the national “Doublebucks” initiative along with a local healthy eating incentive funded through our Healthier JC mini-grant, arts and music, promoting New Jersey state peach production, asking local businesses and residents to contribute to our food access programs, and much more. FITH has collaborated with Jersey City in the past to make sure that older residents can get to the market to buy healthy foods. FITH has provided food baskets to young single mothers participating in nutrition and parenting programs with Haven. FITH collaborates with other organizations that steward open space, parks and community gardens, which are all important for a culture of health. Our food waste collection program provides compost material for the Riverview Community Garden, for example, and has collected nearly 4,000 lbs of food scraps which is being turned into compost right in our neighborhood. Finally, besides providing a marketplace for local farms and existing businesses, FITH’s commitment to incubating new small businesses and hiring local residents to work at the RFM contributes to economic sustainability and health for residents.
Whiles access to affordable healthy food choices is the focus of FITH’s work, all of the activities described above are all essential to building a culture of health.

What would you identify as your most significant accomplishment so far towards building a greater culture of health? What have been some of your toughest barriers?
The greatest achievement and our toughest obstacle were both related to our efforts to preserve and expand the Doublebucks program at the RFM. In spite of the of obstacles, overall, in FY2018, we redeemed 14% more in SNAP/EBT tokens over FY 2017, not counting our FITH Nutritional Incentive. For the 2018 RFM season, FITH had to seek funding for this program from a new source. Through a concerted effort, FITH secured funds through two sources, the Jersey City Medical Center and City Green. Later, the mini grant through the Healthier JC partnership was another important award that we were able to get that shored up the program and indeed expanded its reach. In the middle of the 2018 market season, we were also faced with a possible shutdown of the SNAP payment processing system. The problem was ultimately averted through an administrative fix by the Governor of New York. Nevertheless, FITH’s board had already mobilized, through its own funds, its relationship with the City of Jersey City and with the support of our funders, to ensure that the Doublebucks program would continue without interruption. The success of the SNAP program overall, and of the Doublebucks program, in particular, despite the initial loss of funding and the potential technical crisis, was a significant accomplishment to further our mission and to build a culture of health. It was a good test of FITH’s ability to respond to crisis and of our organizational relationships in the larger ecosystem of affordable food access and of building a culture of health in Jersey City.

Tell us about your team. What they do to build a culture of health in Jersey City?
The FITH team includes a dedicated and active board of directors, the excellent RFM staff, the market venders, and our program collaborators. Under the leadership of our president, Mark Bunbury, the FITH board sets the goals for the organization and seeks every opportunity to further our mission, which is directly tied to building a culture of health in Jersey City Heights. We hire and supervise the RFM staff, we establish and implement market policies, and we plan the calendar and structure for all market programs. The RFM staff runs the everyday operations and administration for the market as well as for its food access programs including the SNAP and Doublebucks and nutritional education programs, such as healthy food cooking demonstrations, healthy recipe sharing and healthy eating cookbook distribution. Most of our staff is local residents and in some cases they are SNAP recipients themselves. This means they can promote the program and also address issues that might arise with firsthand knowledge of how problems could affect SNAP customers. The staff also manages vendor relations and is the face of the organization to the public. Their work is key to the smooth operation of the market as well as our general market outreach and promotion. The RFM staff and the FITH board work together on all the efforts focused on maximizing affordable access to healthy food an all of the activities we deem important for healthy living described in answer to the first question above. We also have a supportive relationship with other community groups and organizations. We collaborate with the Riverview Neighborhoods Association on the market venue/ park matters and cultural events. We collaborate with the Riverview Community Garden on the food waste collection and compost program. We collaborate with our famers to donate unsold fresh produce to the local food pantry at St John’s Church. We also contract with a local arts administrator and producer to hire local artists who perform at our market one a month. All of these collaborations are essential to the “community center” environment at the RFM, which helps us in our healthy food access outreach efforts.

How do you plan on using your Culture of Health Grant?
FITH has been and will continue to use the mini-grant to leverage the preexisting Doublebucks program to improve health and wellbeing of mothers and children and improve the general health of all SNAP customers through a “Buy Local, Cook Local, Eat Local” Initiative. The incentive program is comprised of three components:

  • Educational Material: All SNAP customers who live with children under the age of 18 will receive a free copy of the Nutrition Matters cookbook and a seasonal produce calendar featuring fresh, easy recipes.
  • Peer Learning & Outreach: RFM staff will review the cookbook with SNAP customers and highlight the in-season produce listed in the book, and discuss the ways in which the cookbook offers healthy local eating options to feed their families We will invite SNAP users to share their own seasonal and healthy recipes with the market staff to be made available to all shoppers.
  • Purchase bonus: All SNAP customers who live with children under the age of 18 will receive a $4 bonus purchase chip every week that they stop by the RFM information table and sign up commit to using it to buy more local fruits and vegetables at the market and cook with them at home.

We received the grant and launched the program in October 2018 with initially strong results in the rest of the RFM season, which ended in late November. We will continue the program into 2019, and we expect to add a layer of incentive and to the expand the education and outreach components of the program:

  • For every friend a SNAP customer brings to the market who buys fruits and vegetables, lives at home with children under 18, and commits to using more fruits and vegetables in their cooking the following week, they will receive a financial or nutritional incentive (free produce). The friend will also receive a cookbook and the offer to participate in market incentive programs.
  • Schedule cooking demonstrations of in-season produce using recipes from the Nutrition Matters cookbook. We would like to ask SNAP recipients who use the cookbook, or have their own healthy in-season recipes to partner with a local nutritionist to give at least two of these demonstrations. We will invite them to have their children participate in the demonstrations.
  • Have onsite and online bulletin board with shared in-season healthy recipes from the entire market community. Each month we will publish online and post at the market the in-season produce that the vendors expect to have. We will ask the community to share their recipes, which the RFM will also post n line and at the market.

If you knew of an organization that was thinking of joining the Partnership for a Healthier JC, what would you say to encourage them to join?
As stated above, having a larger ecosystem and infrastructure for a culture of health involves collaborations and partnerships outside of our local neighborhoods and communities. FITH recommends joining the Partnership, which is part of the larger ecosystem and infrastructure in Jersey City and which provides resources, support and general education to organizations trying to build a culture of health from the ground up.