DELRAN >> Leaders from New Jersey Farmers Against Hunger and the New Jersey Agricultural Society teamed with members of the Burlington County Board of Commissioners April 23 to break ground on a new land stewardship center at Laurel Run Park.

The Laurel Run Land Stewardship Center is being established by the New Jersey Agricultural Society as part of a landmark agreement with the County Commissioners that gives the nonprofit organization the use of a 3-acre parcel of the park for Farmers Against Hunger operations and other activities to promote and educate the public about land stewardship and agricultural sustainability.

As part of the agreement, Farmers Against Hunger will develop working crop fields and teaching gardens at the former peach farm-turned-park that will be used to grow crops for donation to the food-insecure families in the region.

“The Land Stewardship Center will help feed and support our New Jersey neighbors today, while growing the next generation of small-scale gardeners and increasing food sovereignty over the long run,” said Elyse Yerrapathruni, New Jersey Farmers Against Hunger Director of Programming and Outreach. “We are so grateful to Burlington County and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for their partnership, and we look forward to opening the Center and welcoming the public as soon as possible.”

Founded in 1996, Farmers Against Hunger is a program of the Agricultural Society that focuses on collecting surplus produce from farms and farmers markets for distribution to food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries. Last year, the program collected and recovered around 2.3 million pounds of food that helped feed thousands of people weekly amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

In addition to food gleaning, the program also provides education about New Jersey-grown fruits, vegetables, nutrition, and cooking.

“The mission of FAH – to connect healthy food from farms to families – has always been important, but it is even more urgent now, as so many New Jersey neighbors are facing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic,” said Brian Strumfels, Director of Operations for New Jersey Farmers Against Hunger. “The Center will allow us to expand the volume of food available for donation and continue to scale up to meet the increased needs of our community.”

Farmers Against Hunger has partnered with Burlington County for years to collect unsold fruits and vegetables following the farmers markets at the Burlington County Agricultural Center in Moorestown. The group also frequently holds cooking demonstrations at the Agricultural Center.

Located along the banks of the Rancocas Creek, the 120-acre Laurel Run Park was previously a peach farm owned and operated by the Anderson family for more than a century before Burlington County purchased and preserved the property in 2001 and then developed it into a County Park in 2015 with the aid of New Jersey Green Acres funding.

The park provides space and trails for passive recreation activities such as hiking and wildlife observation. It also has a picnic area with pavilion, charcoal grill and portable restroom enclosure.

As part of the agreement with the County, Farmers Against Hunger will have access to the farm buildings on the property, including the former farm market, packing shed, and refrigerated storage space that is expected to greatly expand the program’s gleaning and food distribution program.

The center will also be used for community education programs and events.

Burlington County Commissioners Linda Hynes and Dan O’Connell said the County’s agreement would both enhance the park and provide Farmers Against Hunger with much-needed space for operations.

“Our parks serve a lot of purposes, but I can’t think of a better one than helping Farmers Against Hunger feed families in need,” said Hynes, who serves the Board’s liaison to the Department of Resource Conservation and Parks. “By providing this space we’re helping to tackle food insecurity in our region while also promoting agriculture, gardening, nutrition and sound land management. This is absolutely a win-win for everyone.”

“For more than a century the land here was a working peach farm, and I am thrilled to see part of it be used again to grow nutritious food for communities in need,” said O’Connell. “It’s another way of preserving our agricultural heritage and to teach the next generation about the importance of farming and how to grow fresh, nutritious foods.”

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