Spotlight on Sustainable Jersey City
Tell us a bit about who you are and how you got involved in Sustainable JC.
My name is Deb Italiano and I am the Founder and Chair of Sustainable JC (SJC) which is a community green team initiative launched in 2011 here in Jersey City NJ. We are often referred to as Jersey City’s home grown NGO and our non-profit mission is to make Jersey City a more sustainable place to live and work. We were inspired to start up Sustainable JC after a small group of knowledgeable colleagues realized there was a real gap in understanding sustainability topics by the public and so we wanted to pull a project together that would focus on educational outreach, sustainability planning for neighborhoods and innovative demonstration projects, which both then and now, represent our core activities.
What do you see as the central challenge facing Jersey City's food system right now?
Access to healthy, affordable food for ALL is one of the Guiding Ideas For Action in SJC’s Charter and as part of our focus to support a local / regional food systems infrastructure that sustains both farmers and consumers, we have supported different initiatives, including expansion of the community garden network in Jersey City to help ignite an urban ag movement. However, due to the rate of new development in Jersey City, the City’s Adopt A Lot Program has now been severely curtailed and there are only a few of these City owned / sponsored lots left to support community gardening and we are sorry to say that there is no urban ag movement in Jersey City. While there are seasonal farmers markets in all six wards of the City, it is not proximate to visit for many residents. Good news is that the farmers markets here is that there are some vendors present at each farmers market that accept WIC/Senior FMNP/SNAP/EBT. Another issue is that we do not have grocery stores offering healthy food options at affordable prices in all wards of the City – in fact, there are a number of food deserts in Jersey City where folks don’t have a nearby supermarket to shop at. (See SJC Food Systems Map 2018 – See Legend Arrows Upper Left.) Also, approximately 70% of school district children are on the Federal School Lunch subsidy program and unfortunately, those meals provided are often not healthy. Seems the local Farm To School program is not as activated as it was in past years under different Food Services Director. Lastly, while there was a surge in Food Pantry Clients a couple of seasons ago reflecting a greater need, due to the requirement for government registration of individuals seeking benefits, many of those food insecure clients dropped away for fear of their status (various scenarios) and privacy being compromised and tracked through government online systems. Fresh healthy food, e.g., produce, is not primarily available for distribution through the food pantry system which relies on food supply that is easy to store.
How has climate change impacted JC? What ways does this challenge your food system?
Cost of food continues to increase, especially for healthier foods effected by climate change impacts, e.g., produce, meat. While we support Buy Fresh Buy Local, many find the cost of food very challenging and often local producers are more expensive than non-local producers. We have used Sustainable Table content in the past to educate our constituents and currently repost educational and news update materials from various sites including FoodPrint.org, having resourced Grace Communications Foundation materials since the early days of SJC.
Does your organization have any stake in the upcoming legislation or federal and state policies? If so, what are the issues that you’re concerned about or want to see action on?
We support those on the front lines fighting for legislation that helps to create a more sustainable food system. We support local / regional campaigns by keeping our constituents informed and encouraging them to take steps to support initiatives directly including climate related opportunities having to do with regenerative soil initiatives throughout the state / region and educating them about the linkages between climate change impacts and agriculture, to keeping the informed about farm labor related issues, the Federal Food Stamp program updates, etal. We are also very concerned and active on the Food Waste front and are in the process of supporting local upstream initiatives to reduce food waste with evolving partnerships in the food recovery and redistribution space for Jersey City.
What lessons have you personally learned along the way? What lessons has Sustainable JC learned along the way?
Food systems infrastructure is complex and nuanced, and frankly we can’t set out to fix the whole thing, but we can make some material differences in small and targeted ways, e.g., putting chefs in touch with food pantries, offering technical assistance to community gardeners, running a composting program which generates food recovery opportunities while we work to reduce food waste. Another related lesson learned is the power of partnerships – collaboration is an awesome lever and we seek to do that as much as possible. It has allowed us to do more with less and to expand our vision.
What do you want people coming to the NESAWG conference to learn about JC and the work you're doing to create a just food system? Any recommendations for things people should check out after conference hours?
For those SJC constituents and others who are interested to develop an education initiative or an innovative demonstration project having to do with their passion related to affordable access to healthy food in Jersey City, please share your project with us. We are interested to support Project Leaders best we can and there is likely some approach we can take to add value to the project – SJC is very fond of saying, “better together”.