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Unknown Pleasures: Feed Your Head

The produce section of the Super Food supermarket on Pennington Avenue in Trenton is an all too rare sight in the city. Photo: Lauren Otis.
The produce section of the Super Food supermarket on Pennington Avenue in Trenton is an all too rare sight in the city. Photo: Lauren Otis.


Last week as I drove along West State Street in Trenton, I noticed a man walking carrying two full reusable cloth grocery bags, one in each hand. I turned onto Hermitage Avenue and made several stops. Ten minutes later, I was again heading west on West State, and there he was, just crossing Parkside Avenue much farther down, still striding purposefully along.

I don’t know where this man purchased the contents of those bags, or how far he had been carrying them, but he encapsulated something that has been on my mind for a while: where people who live in Trenton get groceries, what our choices are, and how those choices can get better.

The far reaches of western Trenton, where this man was headed and where I live, is designated a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as are large swaths of Trenton as a whole. The U.S.D.A. defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”

The food options within easy walking distance of my house are as follows: a bodega (which has staples at not terrible prices, but no fresh fruit or vegetables), a liquor store, of course (if you count alcohol as food), a gas station convenience store (chips, soda, candy and hot dogs), and a pizzeria. Oh yeah, and there’s also Joe Bair’s Princeton Homebrew store down the road, so I have access to lots of unhusked barley and hops if I need them.

I can ride my bike to greenmarkets or grocery stores several miles away, but others may not like to balance grocery bags on handlebars or in a backpack. For heavy staples like big bottles of cooking oil, seltzer and canned goods, driving to a supermarket is the only option if I want to not purchase small quantities at high prices.  No car? Sorry.

Trenton has plenty of unhealthy takeout, fast food, snack and liquor store options. While the rest of America eats ten different kinds of kale, we are offered ten kinds of potato chips. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease are some of the results. Unhealthy food creates unhealthy bodies, and minds less able to focus and create, go to school, excel at work, make money, make art, remake communities.

In this season of sprouting and germination, the good news is that it’s not all bad news here. Creative minds working at nourishing the city in so many other ways are also tackling how to feed it better.

A new farm market, the Greenwood Avenue Farmers Market, is scheduled to open June 15, thanks to the efforts of an alliance of local community groups including the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids, the New Jersey Farm to School Network, Isles, the Henry J. Austin Center, the Trenton YMCA, Rutgers and others.

Located at 427 Greenwood Avenue, on a vacant lot behind the Trenton Transit Center at the corner of Hudson Street, the market will take place every Monday through October, from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., says NJ Farm to School Network Director Beth Feehan. Vendors include Norz Hill Farm, Isles (selling produce from its Tucker Street garden), Trenton Meats and Franca Bakery, says Feehan. The market will be convenient for nearby senior housing, a school, and several neighborhoods in an area that doesn’t have access to food, Feehan says. All vendors will be equipped to handle food stamp cards and other government assistance programs for food. “It’s also walking distance to Mill Hill,” and ideal for commuters, Feehan says.

The farmers market will complement the daytime markets Wednesdays on Warren and Capital City Market (on Thursdays), operated by the Trenton Downtown Association during the summer. Just to be clear, the “Trenton Farmers Market” is located in Lawrence, and is basically inaccessible from most of Trenton without a car.

Another farm market in Trenton. This is great news. As is the proliferation of community gardens in the city. But, before you think the city’s fresh produce problem is solved, consider that most people shop for fresh ingredients for supper at supermarkets. What about the parent who gets off work late, long past farm market hours, and has hungry children to feed? No, they’re  not going to walk to the community garden and see what they can harvest.

A 2009 report by The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based non-profit working to increase access to healthy food, noted that Trenton had the fewest number of supermarkets per 100,000 residents of any of the five New Jersey cities it studied. The others were Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Vineland.

The national average is 11.6 supermarkets per 100,000 residents, The Food Trust report states. Trenton was at 31 percent of this national average, according to the report. Newark did best at 77 percent of the national average.

By my count, there are three real supermarkets in the city, and two smaller but well stocked markets. Food Bazaar in the Roebling Market off South Clinton Avenue is the only real mega grocery store in Trenton. Yes, it’s got everything, and then some, at good prices. Super Food and Supreme Food Market, in non-descript shopping centers at 359 Pennington Avenue and 410 Lalor Street respectively, are good small supermarkets, with fresh fruit, vegetable, meat and dairy offerings. Selecto, which has been around for decades on South Broad Street near the arena, is far smaller but still has plenty of produce and other fresh offerings. And, thanks to Chambersburg’s Latino population, Fernandez Supermarket – located in a cramped space on Whittaker Avenue – is stocked floor-to-ceiling with Spanish ingredients of encyclopedic variety.

Does Trenton need more supermarkets? Yes. Are any coming soon? No. In fact, in recent years we have lost at least one supermarket, the Shop n Bag off Hermitage Avenue.

Food Trust Senior Associate Miriam Manon, co-author of the 2009 report, says 2011 legislation in New Jersey would have offered financial incentives to supermarkets opening in under-served places like Trenton – similar to landmark legislation in Pennsylvania that earmarked $30 million for that purpose. The bill passed both houses of the NJ State Legislature but was pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, Manon says.

Manon says financial incentives to start supermarkets in Trenton and other New Jersey cities are being offered through the New Jersey Food Access Initiative, a partnership between the Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based community development bank, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

Aside from these complicated, lumbering policy options, is there another way? There is. The hyper-local option, best espoused by my friends and fellow Trenton residents Lori Johansson and Nikki Nailbomb. Johansson and Nailbomb are vegans. When they wanted almond milk and other fresh products, and their local bodega didn’t carry them, what did they do? They asked for them. And their local bodega complied. Now they can get at least some of the healthy food they want right around the corner and their bodega has a new source of sales.

More formally, The Food Trust has been pushing just such efforts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey through its Healthy Corner Store Initiative, says Manon. The program works to get more healthy food – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, low fat dairy products – into local urban corner stores, she says.

Locally, the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids – Trenton, part of the Trenton Healthy Food Network, has been partnering with corner stores in Trenton to put healthier food on their shelves.

Trenton is a long way off from the world of food co-ops and green markets full of whole foods and organic produce so common in tonier parts of New York and Philadelphia. These are enterprises needing time to establish themselves and serious community buy-in.

Right now, the Trenton food desert will only be cultivated through the individual efforts of you and I, one visit to local farm markets, one request for almond milk, broccoli, bananas and yogurt at a time.

– Greenwood Ave. Farmers Market, 427 Greenwood Ave. every Monday 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., June 15 through October 27. For information, email greenwoodavefm@gmail.com.

Written by
Lauren Otis

Lauren Otis is an artist and writer living in Trenton. He is founder and director of Art All Day and co-founder of Trenton Community Supported Art. Follow Lauren on Twitter @OtisAlchemist. Check out his website at www.alchemicalprojects.com.

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Written by Lauren Otis