Since 1981, Isles Inc. has served the Trenton, New Jersey area through numerous community development and environmental efforts. With the help of donations, Isles provides services and programs to cultivate strong, healthy, and sustainable neighborhoods. Alongside its financial services to families in need, job-readiness skills training, and building rehabilitation, the organization’s urban agriculture training programs and green initiatives also improve the environment and strengthen the community.
Though urban agriculture initiatives, such as that of Isles, are far from a modern concept, the coronavirus pandemic revealed their ongoing importance during times of need. In 2020, Capital City Farm board member, Beth Feehan, told New Jersey Conservation Foundation about the issues with the global food supply systems during that time, saying, “as the pandemic has illustrated, urban communities can’t depend solely on large national and international food supply systems. There must be local and regional food systems in place as well.”
To cope with the food shortages and inflation, people relied on the convenience of local farms. The Garden State houses more than 9,000 farms, though the city of Trenton is thought of as a food desert, lacking nutritious and fresh produce. “Unfortunately, most of the corner stores and bodegas do not offer much in the way of produce,” explains Justin Allen, Urban Agriculture Project Manager at Isles. “And if they do, it’s typically not fresh.”
Isles’ Trenton gardens have helped individuals save money, choose healthier food options, beautify neighborhoods, and come together. The organization’s incubator training program supports experienced and new gardeners by providing garden-based environmental education. Through three workshops, gardeners learn the basics of seeding, lighting conditions, and the process of planting, growing, and caring for crops. Justin credits consistency, time, and attention as the keys to successfully maintaining the community gardens Isles supports, as well as its training garden. During open hours every Wednesday evening, from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Isles allows one-on-one time when experts field any questions from gardeners regarding their plots, to ensure thriving harvests.
Isles affordably sells many of the crops harvested from its Tucker Street Garden at the Greenwood Avenue Farmer’s Market (GAFM), of which it is a founding member. After COVID halted the reopening of seasonal farmer’s markets, including the Greenwood Avenue Market, the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Mercer County teamed up with the Capital Area YMCA, which runs the market, to ensure that it reopened for the 2022 season.
Beth Englezos, Manager of Senior Programs & Hunger Prevention at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of GMC, understands Trenton’s food insecurity all too well.
“We saw how vital the market is to residents of Trenton—a known food desert—especially when it comes to fresh produce,” Englezos said. “We quickly reached out to all the parties involved…to see what we could do to ensure that the GAFM opened.”
The popular market accepts SNAP benefits and offers free health services for those in need. The JFCS Mobile Food Pantry provides limited groceries at the GAFM, as well as an array of food options at other distribution sites. “It is extremely important for us to provide fresh produce to everyone all year round. We work with area farmers, local produce distributors, community gardeners, churches, synagogues, and school gardens throughout the year,” said Englezos.
These organizations have proven that making neighborhoods greener and improving access to food and nutrition is a community effort that will ultimately reduce inequality and benefit Trenton.
This story was co-produced in collaboration with CivicStory (http://www.civicstory.org) and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project (SRhub.org)