The word community means many things to many people. It can be described as a group having something similar in common. It can be a group of people living together in one place, it could denote workers or resources designed to serve the people of a particular area or a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals.
With those definitions in mind, I would like to introduce you to CROPS, a New Jersey 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. CROPS stands for Communities Revolutionizing Open Public Spaces and promotes healthy, connected communities. The group’s mission: “To facilitate growth by creating new experiences and places that promote healthy and connected communities. Through farmers markets, community gardens, art, theater and other programs and spaces, to enable communities to plant seeds together and reap the benefits for years to come”.
A few months ago as I sat with Paige Vaccaro and Lisa Newcomb, co-presidents of the group and two of the driving forces behind CROPS, I learned of their growth plan for the organization and their shared vision to forward the group’s mission. The two have common attitudes, interests and goals when it comes to their community.
Vaccaro is a former public school teacher who has taught in Baltimore, Brooklyn and Newark and Ocean Township in New Jersey. When Vaccaro relocated to Atlantic County, she set out to forge new paths to bridge the gaps within and between communities. Her zeal for helping others parallels her deep-rooted connection to the earth, which she believes is a great equalizer. By empowering people to connect with nature and with one another, she believes everyone benefits regardless of their age, socioeconomic status, experience, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political beliefs. She believes with unequivocal faith that small, positive gestures have a deep and lasting impact on the community at large and the individual within. Her father used to say, “Girl, no grass grows under your feet!” That saying is true, because you can always find her on the move with her four children right beside her, planting seeds everywhere she can and nurturing them with love.
Newcomb joined the CROPS board in April 2019. She is a fundraising professional living in Atlantic County. With her experience of working with nonprofits, she brought her knowledge and ability to navigate resources to the table to help elevate the organization. Having grown up in Atlantic County, she cares very much for the South Jersey community. However, as in many places all over the country, there is a stark contrast between the affluent and the poor communities in South Jersey. She believes that we have the best chance of making positive impacts in the places we call home. Through fundraising and advocacy, Newcomb hopes to be able to bring more resources to less supported communities in our backyards.
This dynamic community-focused duo’s complementary skill sets are the foundation and framework for the growth of CROPS. The plan and roll out for increasing the number of community markets they have become known for producing was solid. With realistic objectives to reach as many regional communities in the future as possible, the goals were well thought out and attainable. And the plans were being launched in the spring — that is, until COVID-19 became an unwelcomed potential attendee to their “Feel Good Farmers Markets.”
So what did the two creative community caring minds come up with? They created a solution to take the social distancing and health concerns and develop a plan to still hold the CROPS Market @ Linwood on Saturdays. The market started May 9. The market will last eight weeks until June 27, occuring 9 to 11 a.m. every Saturday morning. The market will be pre-order and pick up only via drive thru until further notice, due to guidelines surrounding COVID-19 safety measures. Orders are taken at localline.ca/crops-markets. The CROPS team will re-evaluate the market set up as weeks pass and regulations change. For more information, see the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/cropsnj.
CROPS works to respond to food insecurity in southern New Jersey and strives to bring communities together. They believe farmers markets and community gardens, as essential businesses, are a part of that response during trying times. Supporting local businesses is as important as feeding local communities. Please be on the lookout for updates as CROPS works to establish markets in more communities and begins accepting SNAP benefits at markets. Proceeds from the markets go toward community garden projects, paid internships, produce giveaways, educational programming and more. Breaking with traditional roles, Vaccaro, founder of CROPS, and Newcomb run the CROPS programs, markets and gardens as unsalaried co-presidents, balancing fundraising, educating the public, gardening, paid internships and advocacy work. With the support of the board of directors, they’re seeing further opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 pandemic and always looking for new volunteers and financial support.
Vaccaro and Newcomb are passionate with just the right mix of persistency and drive that can carry a community focused nonprofit through growth in the good times and, as we have seen, through the more challenging of times. CROPS is thankful for and clearly inspired by the support the community has shown. For more information, follow CROPS on social media.