In the South Jersey suburbs, people are turning to gardening to relieve lock-down boredom and produce the fresh food that is in short supply in local stores. But what can you do in an impoverished city that is already classed as a food desert and that suffers from flooding, soil contamination and other gardening hazards? C.R.O.P.S., a nonprofit founded four years ago by Paige Vaccaro, has come up with a novel answer: ready-made container gardens, free for pickup from community garden sites.
When the lockdown began, Vaccaro was worried it would mean the end of the community gardens’ spring growing season, as well as plans for organizing farmers’ markets. C.R.O.P.S. had been planning a fundraising event that was supposed to happen on Earth Day. It was cancelled. It seemed like all C.R.O.P.S.’ plans for expanding its Atlantic City community gardens and holding pop-up farmers’ markets would be postponed. Then, later in March, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declared agriculture an essential industry and Rutgers University compiled guidelines for community gardens and farmers’ markets.
“As much as I always knew in my heart this work is important, to hear it called essential and to think of it that way was a real huge shift for me,” said Vaccaro. “Of course, I wanted to give people food, that’s my first and foremost concern,” she said. “But I wanted to do the gardening part too. Everybody needs that right now. So I was like, if we can’t do it together, why not have them take it home?”
Since the start of April, C.R.O.P.S. has given away more than 80 pots of kale, collards, spinach, lettuce and more. Popsicle sticks in the pots describe the plant and its care, while sticks in the community gardens’ big raised beds help passersby know what is ready to pick and what needs more time to grow. With just a few posts on Instagram, C.R.O.P.S. received donations of soil, containers and cash that helped buy more items.
The community garden on North Pennsylvania Ave has been open for almost a year. It is called the Sister Jean’s garden, because it sits in the churchyard of an empty church that will be the future home of Sister Jean’s Soup Kitchen (an Atlantic City institution previously operating from the Tourism District that was shuttered by city officials last year.) The garden is unfenced and right on the sidewalk of a main thoroughfare from some of the city’s housing projects to the beach and boardwalk, or the stores on Atlantic Avenue. Vaccaro said that now most passersby she sees are wearing masks, so she can invite them into the garden if they keep their distance, but she is working on signs to make the rules public, and limit the garden to one family at a time. C.R.O.P.S. has similar gardens at Atlantic City’s Venice Park as well as outside Covenant House, but these area fenced, which makes it easier to meet the pandemic distancing rules while gardening, even if it makes the food distribution part harder.
Vaccaro and the C.R.O.P.S. board are also working on ways to hold their farmers markets during the pandemic. The markets are allowed to open as essential businesses under COVID-19 guidelines, but rules on physical distancing create payment and other logistical challenges. C.R.O.P.S. is working with Edible Jersey Magazine, which is piloting a web-based order system to help connect farms and visitors for online produce sales that would result in a curbside pickup at the market location. Vaccaro said she is hoping to get final sign off shortly to open a market like this in Linwood’s Central Square, as well as on Tennessee Ave in Atlantic City. An added bonus is that C.R.O.P.S. recently got approval to accept SNAP benefits as payment at its markets. The C.R.O.P.S. markets would also qualify for the Double Up Food Bucks program, which doubles the value of food stamps spent on fresh produce.
C.R.O.P.S. just received a $5,000 fiscal sponsorship from Orsted, which will go toward expanding its garden programs in AC and paying interns to tend them, as well for for more container garden giveaways. If you would like to support C.R.O.P.S., donations of containers, soil, seeds and money are gratefully received (you can find out how to contact C.R.O.P.S. via their website, Instagram or Facebook). Vaccaro said she would also like help making connections with casino managers and others organizing food drives right now, so that she can help get food produced by local farmers onto the tables of furloughed casino employees and other workers.