On a recent Tuesday evening in Hackettstown, an energetic crew of volunteers line rows of folding tables with pounds and pounds of freshly harvested local vegetables. On display is an aromatic and colorful arrangement of peppers, greens, and fruits, ready for the taking.
Farmer’s markets like this one can be seen in communities all over The Garden State this time of year, offering consumers locally harvested produce at peak freshness, while offering farmers a lucrative opportunity to sell directly to their clientele at retail prices.
But this is no average farmer’s market. While the produce available here is fresh and locally harvested, none of it is for sale.
Every item here is available free of charge to anyone attending the market. There are no forms to fill out, no minimum requirements of any kind to meet, and attendees do not need to present an ID.
Volunteers ask market attendees only one question: How many people are in your household? Skeptics may say that ‘nothing is free,’ and others may ask ‘what’s the catch?’ But here there is no catch. Just crisp, nutritious local produce, available to anyone for free.
These produce items take an extraordinary journey on their way from nearby farm fields to kitchen tables across northern New Jersey, gleaned and delivered by the dedicated staff and volunteers of LocalShare. Volunteers include Barbara, who contacted the organization about a year ago to offer her help.
“(When) Daisy got back to me, she says ‘We would love to have you. We’re gleaning apples at one of the farms.’ I’m like, you’re doing what? I have no idea what that is, but I will be there for nine o’clock!”
LocalShare works with as many as 17 different farms in northwest New Jersey to source food items for ‘pop-up markets’ like this one in Hackettstown, as well as soup kitchens and food pantries in communities across Warren, Sussex, and Morris counties.
Farmers working with LocalShare allow the volunteers access to their fields and orchards to glean produce that might otherwise go to waste—produce leftover after the harvest or grown in quantities the farmer can’t sell.
Christine Parauda, the Coordinator at LocalShare, says the organization works primarily with organic and, wherever possible, regenerative farms in the area to provide the highest quality, most nutritious food it can.
Equally important, LocalShare works with volunteers in the community to provide the much-needed labor required to distribute their fruitful harvests. Often, these volunteers began as recipients.
On this day in Hackettstown, Tracy is on hand to help load and unload the van, as well as assist market attendees. Tracy began attending the free market in Vernon with her teenage daughter about a year ago after losing her husband to COVID-19. Now they attend markets across Warren and Sussex counties as volunteers. She enjoys giving back and putting market attendees at ease.
“Sometimes they feel bad about (accepting free food)… sometimes you can help them feel more accepting of this,” she says.
She hopes her efforts provide some stress relief to local families who may be dealing with more than just food insecurity. Her time as a volunteer has rooted her in her own community. As the market winds down, Tracy gathers a collection of items to bring home to Vernon for a family in her neighborhood.
There is ample need for the food LocalShare provides. At the recent market in Hackettstown, the first of the season at this location, 146 total individuals across 43 families were served. Another market in Newton this summer had an even greater turnout, feeding 95 families more than 660 pounds of food.
As of late August, LocalShare had distributed over 21,000 pounds of fresh produce at 30 free pop-up markets, feeding as many as 7,650 individuals across more than 2,600 households. With 29 more markets planned this year, those numbers are sure to increase.
Last year, for example, LocalShare distributed nearly 122,000 of gleaned, donated and purchased produce, plus over 12,600 dozen eggs.
While based in Hope, their reach is wide, providing services to families and individuals across six counties in New Jersey via the markets they organize, and through partnerships with soup kitchens, food pantries, and several non-profit organizations including St. Luke’s Health Network, Zufall Health, NORWESCAP, and The Lord’s Pantry at Trinity Church in Hackettstown, to name a few.
Hunger never takes a day off, so the staff at LocalShare work year-round to ensure that families in need have the access they require to fresh produce and prepared meals. Most gleaning occurs in the summer and autumn seasons.
While there is less to glean in the cold winter months, there are always numerous administrative tasks to complete and perishable food requiring storage or processing.
With so much need in the community, LocalShare often finds itself in need as well. Grants and donations cover most operation costs, but as a rule, grants do not cover staff salaries.
LocalShare relies on the strength of its relationships with farmers, non-profits and especially its volunteers to make it all work. The organization is always looking to partner with new farms and community organizations to expand its reach to families in places with the greatest need.
To learn more about LocalShare’s programs, or to find the nearest free market to you, visit them on their website at www.localsharenj.org; on Facebook or Instagram @localshare; or by downloading the LocalShare NJ app in the Apple store or the Google Play store.
Those interested in donating to LocalShare as a benefactor or as a volunteer would join an enthusiastic and dedicated team.
“I do whatever I can for them now,” Barbara says. “It brings me such joy to do this.”
Danny O'Neill, Contributing Writer
Danny began writing as a teenager in his hometown of Long Valley, NJ, and has attended creative writing programs at both Middlesex County College and Warren County Community College. A lifelong Jersey boy, Danny finds delight in traveling, cooking, and unearthing the hidden stones of history wherever he goes. Danny joined the Ridge View Echo in 2023, and in his spare time enjoys reading and writing poetry and creative non-fiction. He lives in Belvidere with his teenage son and a dog named Willie.