Brian Strumfels and Elyse Yerrapathruni finally have the best possible answer to a question they so often get asked about NJ Farmers Against Hunger.
The nonprofit organization recovers, or “gleans,” fruits and vegetables from farms that would otherwise compost or plow them under, distributes the bounty to consumers who can’t easily access it, and has been doing so since 1996.
“So people say, ‘Where’s your farm?’ and we say, ‘We’re not farmers. We work with farmers,’” said Strumfels, director of operations for the nonprofit.
“Now we can say, ‘Our farm is in Delran Township,’” he said, standing with Yerrapathruni outside the Laurel Run Land Stewardship Center. Farmers Against Hunger’s first headquarters, on Creek Road just east of Route 130, features event space, a warehouse and cold storage facility, and three acres for crops such as lettuce, broccoli, sweet potatoes, green beans, and kale.
“We’ve been a decentralized [operation] for a long time, and this center is going to be transformative,” said Yerrapathruni, director of programming and outreach. “Centralizing our operation will make us more efficient, so we can get more food out to more people.”
The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in America’s food system, particularly at the local level in urban neighborhoods and lower-income communities where many residents lack ready access to fresh produce even in the best of times. Farmers Against Hunger has developed its own system to get fruits and vegetables from farm to table, fast.
“When the pandemic hit, individuals reached out and called us for help,” Yerrapathruni said. “They had never experienced food insecurity before. They didn’t know how to get food.”
The stewardship center is in a highly visible corner of what had been a beloved, family-owned peach orchard called Rainbow Meadow Farm. It was operated for decades on what is now the site of Laurel Run, a popular Burlington County Park.
The 127 acres were protected from commercial development beginning in 2001 through the county’s use of the state’s Farmland Preservation program; 2,695 farms comprising a total of 239,350 acres have been set aside statewide as of January 2021.
Yerrapathruni said having a location to practice and demonstrate “low- and no-till” farming and its soil conservation benefits is an opportunity to educate the public.
“COVID has highlighted the need for a local and sustainable food supply,” she said. “We want to empower the people we serve by teaching them to grow their own food. We’d love this to be a destination for students. They could see a farm in action and get their hands in the soil.”
Credit for the idea of having Farmers Against Hunger lease the long-dormant facilities at Laurel Run goes to Mary Pat Robbie, director of the Burlington County Department of Resource Conservation.
“There was a conversation about three or four years ago at the Burlington County Agricultural Center in Moorestown,” she said. “Brian and Elyse had to rent chiller space and do a lot of driving to get to that chiller space. I said, ‘The county has a chiller at the Anderson farm we aren’t going to use. Why can’t we work out something where you could use it?’
“Farmers Against Hunger does such good things and is so needed at this particular time,” Robbie said, adding that under the five-year lease, the nonprofit “maintains buildings that we no longer have to maintain” and will draw people to the park.
County Commissioner Dan O’Connell, who served as a township council member in Delran and said he has fond memories of the Anderson family, their farm, and especially, the white peaches they grew, said the reuse of the site “is a win-win-win” for the community.
“The county gets an enhancement of the park,” he said. “It’s win for Farmers Against Hunger and a win for the residents of Delran.”
Farmers Against Hunger has a paid staff of seven and an annual budget of about $300,000 — funded in part by the Princeton Area Community Foundation. The organization works closely with local supermarkets as well as farmers; about 40 farms, most in Central and South Jersey, regularly offer produce.
Jim Giamarese, a third-generation Middlesex County farmer who grows “asparagus to zucchini” on 115 acres in East Brunswick, was involved in establishing Farmers Against Hunger 25 years ago. Now a program of the New Jersey Agricultural Society, the organization got started after some state legislators on a tour of Salem County farms were shocked to learn that perfectly good tomatoes and other produce was regularly composted or plowed under.
Ultimately, farmers, politicians, the state Department of Agriculture, the New Jersey Farm Bureau, and the Agricultural Society got behind creating a system “to give away [surplus food] to people who need it,” Giamarese said. “Farmers hate to plow under something that’s good.”
He noted that Farmers Against Hunger is nimble and able to respond quickly when surplus crops become available on short notice.
“We get calls from farmers who say, ‘I’m plowing a field under tomorrow. How many volunteers can come out?’” Strumfels said.
“The farmers participate in our program because we make it easy for them,” Yerrapathruni said. “Farmers are busy. We bring the volunteers and the trucks.
“We’re able to take large amounts of food and just run with it,” she added. “Our volunteers will get that food to people either that day or the next day.”
About 1,500 volunteers help glean the fresh fruit and veggies on site and get it loaded into trucks. Volunteers also pack individual bags of groceries with produce as well as nonperishable items from partner organizations such as the Food Bank of South Jersey.
“We have corporate volunteer groups from Campbell’s and other companies, and a great corps of [individual] volunteers, with a lot of regulars,” Yerrapathruni said.
Longtime volunteer Margaret Reddick is a retired social worker who lives in Cherry Hill and has a deep network of contacts at churches, senior housing complexes, and neighborhood organizations in Camden, and in Camden County.
“I’ve been doing this since 2002 or 2003,” she said. “It’s something I love to do.”
Finding the right location, and the best local person to handle the delivery and the distribution, is key. When management of an apartment complex in Lindenwold barred food distribution on its property, Reddick reached out to a local church that was willing to host the activity.
“We did not miss a beat,” she said. “Where there is a need, we provide.”
On delivery day, “when we’re done, it’s a good feeling,” Reddick said. “We know that no child whose family got food that day will go hungry.”