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A Garden State of Mind

The latest mural on The Ave celebrates Vineland’s agricultural heritage.
by Emily Farrell

There is something especially refreshing about homegrown produce after a day of sweating out the summer heat. One particularly hot afternoon I found myself cruising by farm fields to Malench’s Farm Market, at the intersection of the Boulevard and East Sherman Avenue, where I was greeted as warmly as the humid air. I began to peruse the stand for a fresh souvenir, reminded of how sweet it is to call Jersey home.

New Jersey ranks among the top 10 in the nation for its production of peaches, tomatoes, blueberries, cucumbers, peppers, spinach, cranberries, squash/zucchini, asparagus, and eggplant, shares NJDA Public Information Officer Jeff Wolfe. The “Jersey Fresh” logo, a recognizable branding and distinction of quality that began in 1984, has a reputation far and wide.

“Along with the great taste and top quality of Jersey Fresh produce, New Jersey is within hours of 50 million consumers. It allows our farmers to have their fruits and vegetables delivered at the peak of freshness to various outlets,” Wolfe says.

Behind “Jersey Fresh” stands the hard work of farmers at nearly 10,000 farms across 750,000 acres in the state, dedicated to producing top notch fruits and vegetables. This esteem is noteworthy. Wolfe explains: “Whether you are a wholesale buyer or a consumer, when you see the Jersey Fresh logo, you know you are getting top quality products direct from our Garden State growers.

“Originally from the Midwest, I can say without question that Jersey Fresh produce is as good as it gets,” Wolfe continues. “We also receive phone calls from people who have moved out of state asking when our fruits and vegetables are available. Jersey Fresh is truly a nationally recognized brand that has a wide appeal.”

For local artist and longtime Vinelander Erin DiPalma, Jersey produce serves as a source of inspiration. DiPalma is in the final stages of completing her first mural, an 1,800-square-foot project on Landis Avenue featuring “a colorful variety of fresh fruits and Jersey vegetables, with a café, chalkboard-type design.” With detailed blueberries and tomatoes that look sweet enough to eat, the mural pays vibrant homage to the fresh produce Jersey has to offer.

DiPalma says that her passion for art is about “bringing a space to life. This project is special because it will bring vibrancy to Landis Avenue and promote local restaurants and small business.”

Her mural can be seen on the side of the vegan soul food restaurant, Vegans Are Us.

The health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables is widely known. With the close proximity to fresh, quality New Jersey produce, eating delicious and nutritious food is an achievable goal. Such a lifestyle change may seem like a daunting task, but the Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA is here to help. The YMCA has previously offered meal prep courses for members, and they are currently paired up with the Vineland Health Department to promote “Live Healthy Vineland.”

This partnership includes the Corner Store Initiative, helping corner stores provide greater and easier access to produce for the communities they serve. Furthermore, the YMCA has certified personal trainers who can aid in more individualized nutritional advice.

Jose Ledezma, the youth and adult Healthy Living director at the Vineland YMCA, provides some advice based on personal experience: “I highly recommend everyone starts out experimenting with different fruits and vegetables, and while I personally do not always reach the recommended amount of servings, I always make sure my lunch/dinner includes a minimum of one serving of vegetables. In addition, in a day, I usually consume three to four snacks throughout the day, and at least one will include a vegetable source and a fruit source.

“The biggest reason why I suggest experimentation with fruits and vegetables,” he adds, “is because everyone is unique and may like different fruits/vegetables, but once you find what you enjoy, it will make the experience feel more enjoyable, rather than a chore.”

At the Farm Market stand, I ask Anthony Malench for guidance on how one would approach a farm stand for the first time and what to look for. Malench recommended the Jersey classics like corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers (titled “pickles” for the type, size, and taste that is grown at Malench’s).

When it comes to shopping for corn, one can judge the best options without even peeking under the husk. Malench suggests testing the weight of a husk within your own hand to determine what feels good. The same seems to apply to cucumbers and tomatoes; finding something that “feels good” comes quite naturally, especially with an already solid selection of Jersey Fresh produce.

With a half dozen husks of corn, three tomatoes, and roughly six pickles riding passenger, I drive home with the prospect of a chilled summer salad in mind. Shuck corn, tuck into a pot of boiling water, and let cool after their three-minute bath. Dice tomatoes and pickles, cut the corn off the cob, and mix together with a light lemon olive oil dressing that includes salt, pepper, and seasoning to taste. I was certainly satisfied with the result, and it tasted even better knowing exactly where it came from.

In regards to fruits and vegetables, there are many tools to experiment with right in Cumberland County’s backyard. Farm markets like Malench’s give “Jersey Fresh” an even more personal connection with hand-to-home produce shopping. A walk or a drive along Landis Avenue now features vibrant artwork of fruits and vegetables that is symbolic of the exciting variety of local food options. The YMCA is working to make these homegrown resources even more readily accessible with nutrition coaching and the Corner Store Initiative.

All of this is thanks to the dedicated farmers and workers in fields around every bend. It is surely sweet to live in the Garden State.