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CROPS founder Paige Vaccaro Photo: Clyde Hughes

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project.

ATLANTIC CITY — Nestled in Atlantic City’s swanky Tanger Outlets shopping district, where the Atlantic City Expressway greets tourists to the city, sits Paige Vaccaro’s vision of urban gardening.

Vaccaro and her creation, Communities Revolutionizing Open Public Spaces, or CROPS, took its own revolutionary step in October when it moved into an open storefront in the district, informally known as “The Walk” because of its bustling pedestrian traffic.

Between neighbors like Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Forever 21 and Brooks Brothers, sits one of the few — if not the only — place visitors on the island can find homegrown fresh vegetables and fruits along with other products made by local residents and entrepreneurs.

Now, with a new grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, CROPS is looking to broaden its community gardening mission even more.

Vaccaro told Front Runner New Jersey that the CROPS store, officially located at 2101 Atlantic Avenue, is a natural extension of its community garden efforts, which have continued to win praise locally and around the state. CROPS continues to be a beacon in one of the worst food deserts in the state, with community gardens in Atlantic City and Pleasantville.

CROPS store staff looks over fresh produce. Photo: Clyde Hughes

She said though, she hopes the store can become a gathering place for people interested in gardening and other sustainability ventures, or simply a meeting place where people can be surrounded by the best the city has to offer in locally made fresh food and products.

“We have a lot of different avenues for people to come to and access the store,” Vaccaro said. “People can use this space to just come out and relax. If you know Atlantic City, that’s difficult to find unless you want to step into a casino. You can have meetings here and know you’re in a nice environment.”

She said local artists display their work on the walls on consignment where CROPS gets 30% of the sales. There is also a workshop space for local chefs, gardeners, and various other programs. They’ve even had live music and poetry provided by local artists. For vendors and potential vendors, there are even classes on how to turn your hobby into a money-making venture.

“We’ve had chefs do cooking demos here,” Vaccaro said. “We do different hands-on activities. All of our vendors are local. We have everything from candles to jewelry, to honey to chocolate. The 30% we make goes right back into the program.

Vaccaro said everything goes back to promote and inspire the community gardens and sustainability mission of CROPS. She said the store’s latest addition, a new hydroponic system that will allow vegetation to grow without the need for soil, could be a magnet for those curious about what’s going on inside their four walls.

“We just purchased the hydroponic system which is custom-made for the store,” Vaccaro said. “You don’t use soil, but instead nutrient-rich water that runs through the system. Every three weeks you can harvest another set of vegetables.”

Vaccaro said the system will allow CROPS to continue offering locally grown fresh products through the winter season.

“The hydroponics were a natural selection because we are now year-round,” she said, explaining their idea of “succession planting” to keep fresh produce on hand. “Let’s say you plant a third of our system one week, then the next week you plant the next third, and then the next week, the next third.

New hydroponic bed waiting to be installed at the CROPS store in early May. Photo: Clyde Hughes

“Then you harvest every week so people can know they’re coming in here and we’re going to have a ton of produce. Right now, we are sourcing from some different local farmers and also our community gardens as well.”

The CROPS store is needed more than ever in Atlantic City. Hopes for a full-service ShopRite supermarket, which would have brought fresh produce to Atlantic City, were dashed in January with the ending of negotiations between ShopRite and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The new ShopRite would have been built within walking distance from the CROPS location.

Alicia Newcomb, executive director for CROPS, said the CRDA this month gave CROPS a grant of more than $300,000 to help expand its mission.

CROPS executive director Alicia Newcomb. Photo courtesy of CROPS website

“I approached the CRDA at the beginning of 2023 to talk to them about the food desert designation in Atlantic City,” Newcomb said. “It was right after it was announced that the deal with ShopRite was not moving forward.


Paige Vaccaro with CROPS store staff. Photo: Clyde Hughes

“I spoke to them about the need to address food deserts with a multi-pronged approach and discussed research that states that putting a full-scale grocery store in food desert communities oftentimes does not impact the shopping habits of residents nor lower chronic disease rates.”

Newcomb said she explained how CROPS acts as a pathway between local, nutritious food and people who need and want it and I asked them about applying for funding. She said the CRDA grant will cover the cost of installing new farm businesses in Atlantic City as well as education and ongoing technical assistance for new farms and education for consumers buying locally grown food.

“It also helps to cover the cost of promoting the program and will allow us to help new farmers we train in the City access contracts with corner stores, restaurants, schools, casinos and healthcare companies so that their farms have access to reliable customers and revenue,” Newcomb said.

The expanded mission is something Newcomb said she welcomes. She said making a healthy impact on the community is one of her true passions.

“I joined CROPS as a board member in April 2019 and I was appointed to the position of executive director in January 2022,” Newcomb said. “I got involved in CROPS because the original farmers market in Linwood happens in my hometown and I wanted to be involved in something I was passionate about.

“I started focusing heavily on knowing where my food comes from back in 2012 due to a health condition. Knowing shopping and working with farmers has changed my whole outlook on life and I love the work that I’m able to do with CROPS.”

Vaccaro said the health component is important to her, with an older brother, 46, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes, which runs in her family.

“I’m not trying to go that route, but so many African Americans like us are in that boat, and particularly if you’re living in poverty,” Vaccaro, 44, said. “I’m passionate about that health piece and I’m hoping to partner with AtlantiCare to get some diabetes education classes here.”

She said eating healthy “does not have to cost a ton of money,” another reason why she thinks the store is so important for those who can’t make it out to CROPS’s community gardens are farmer’s markets.

One of CROPS community gardens in the Atlantic City area. Photo courtesy of CROPS Facebook

“Everyone is welcome here,” she said. “I want to pull from every community because that’s how you get change.”

Vaccaro said, though, CROPS community garden plots at Sister Jean’s Place, 108 North Pennsylvania Avenue, in Atlantic City, remain open and free to the public for pickings, as do their locations in Pleasantville at 1311 N Main Street and 57 Pacific Avenue.

There, visitors will find all sorts of vegetables from bok choy, collard, mustard and turnip greens, and kale, to name a few.

Vaccaro said in the end, she hopes the store and the grant continue to raise awareness about the importance of sustainability, eating healthy and community gardening. She said she also hopes to rent the store out to other groups and events.

“I hope we they come in here, they learn about these other beautiful spaces in Atlantic City that maybe they haven’t learned about before,” Vaccaro said. “We like the produce in the garden that we have and people can go there any time and harvest and take food.

“Six months from now, this is going to be a happening place with all kinds of activities. We’ll have a schedule of classes all day long. I’d love to see the classes going on. I want it to be an ‘idea’ space.”

Sign points visitors to one of the various workshops put on at the CROPS store. Photo courtesy of CROPS Facebook

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project.

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