Local foods a big topic at Creative Skylands event

AFP Correspondent

NETCONG (June 15, 2015) — The first topic suggestion at the Creative Skylands gathering on June 1 was how tobring local food to as many people as possible.
Creative New Jersey is a moveable think tank that goes into various regions around the state engaging locals in solving the problems most urgent to that region in creative and innovative ways.
A subgroup, Creative Skylands defines that area as Western Morris, Warren and Sussex counties.
The day started with a brief introductory session in the theater at The Growing Stage, about 100 yards from the Morris-Sussex border that bisects Lake Musconetcong.
About 100 people from the tri-county area representing business, non-profits and the arts attended.
When the floor was open for ideas, Kate Manning of Local Share was the first person up and speaking.
Local Share works with the Foodshed Alliance, primarily on a gleaning project that provides food to food pantries.
It connects surplus food from farms with hungry people in the same area.
The idea behind Creative New Jersey is to weave networks and advance dialogue among groups of innovative and creative people, according to Kacy O’Brien, the Creative New Jersey project manager who put together the two-day Netcong symposium.
She noted that “people tend to talk to other people in their own silos,” but Creative New Jersey brings together people who wouldn’t normally associate.
The breakout sessions were self-organized and Manning attracted a large and diverse group.
She said when she first became interested in the food system she was shocked at the amount of waste of “gorgeous organic produce.”
The Foodshed Alliance created an asset map to provide food pantries with the location of farms and farms of the location of food pantries.
She found many groups of people trying to do the same thing, but not connected to one another.
Farmers don’t have the time or resources to get excess food to the needy, she noted. “They feel disconnected,” she said.
Participant Sue Zukoski pointed out it is important to bring the farmer and community together.
Manning said it surprises her that people are unaware of the many farmers’ markets and farm stands in the area with a wide variety of vendors.
“If it isn’t Alstede’s or Donaldson’s, they don’t know about them,” she said, referring to the two largest farm stands in the Hackettstown/Chester area.
Participant Mitzi Campbell noted people need to be educated about healthy food.
Manning said people with higher incomes have become accustomed to better food, but many people don’t have the time to research or the money to buy organic.
“People think organic is snooty,” she said.
She is trying to dispel that myth by encouraging people who sell organic to provide cooking classes or at least recipe cards to help consumers understand what to do with less familiar vegetables or with a surplus of one vegetable.
Participant Greg Gorman, who is retired from the U.S. Army Contract Command, recommended encouraging local businesses to buy from local farmers.
“There are restauranteurs looking for good food and farmers looking to sell in bulk,” he added.
Participant Andrea Kirchuk of the Mt. Olive Area Chamber of Commerce, pointed out the Skylands is very regionalized, not one contiguous community.
She noted Easton, Pa., as a city, can do restaurant walks and other events. “It’s a challenge to be disconnected” without a central downtown.
“We’ve lost our downtowns,” she said.
“They allowed box stores to come in,” Campbell replied.
Kirchuk pointed out much of the Skylands region is in the Highlands Preservation area so it is now precluded from development.
This protects the farms, but not necessarily the farmers, unless they have a good market for their produce.
She said the people of the Skylands need to develop a region-wide mindset and encourage development of production and distribution facilities for locally-grown food.
Participant Jonathan Cloud said that starts with identifying holes in the market and finding innovative ways of meeting them, including development small industries for food processing.
Bill Leavens of the Musconetcong Watershed Association pointed out there is no convenient way to process perishable foods.
He noted in past times, grain was processed into grain alcohol because it stored well and water was not necessarily potable.
“When water became potable, it changed the dynamic,” he added.
“So the big hole in the market is processing,” Manning said.
She said she has been trying to open a shared commercial kitchen because New Jersey laws make it difficult for farmers to sell processed goods like cheese, yogurt, jams and jellies.
Manning said there are so many opportunities for collaboration among local businesses, including farms.
“A friend of mine tried to get a PR collective together but there was resistance from farmers,” she said.
Kirchuk suggested getting both farmers and restauranteurs more involved in chambers of commerce would be a good idea.
Leavens said finding a way to brand produce from a local area might help as well.
Another avenue the group suggested pursing was to communicate to youth that farming is a viable career choice.
Manning said apprentice farming programs, such as those at Genesis Farm and through NOFA-NJ are a good start, but children should be taught about farming even younger.
Creative NJ compiled all the notes from the breakout sessions and shared them with the entire group in the hope the discussion will continue.