The following is a guest post by folklorists Claire Denny and Sally Van de Water of the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, New Jersey. The AFC’s Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series is a collaboration with Van de Water, Denny, and colleagues at the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County. Read the introductory post about the film series here, and watch the first film in the series here, and second film here.
As part of our collaboration on the Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series, today is the premiere of the series’ final film, REPLENISH: Nourishing Neighbors through Community Food Equity, which you can watch in the player above or on the Library’s YouTube channel.
REPLENISH: Nourishing Neighbors brings viewers into the world of community food banks and food pantries, sharing the ways in which organizations, staff, and volunteers serve and strengthen their neighborhoods through food distribution and access to social services, such as housing support, job searches, health care, and more. This film also takes a deeper look at Middlesex County’s Share Your Foodways program, detailing its inception during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the film shows, REPLENISH (Instagram: @we_replenish) connects more than 160 food pantry partners throughout Middlesex County. The REPLENISH warehouse is open five days a week to provide these grassroots organizations with food, social service resources, and connections to other staff and volunteers with similar goals. In 2021, serving a population of just under 850,000 people, REPLENISH received and distributed over 4.7 million pounds of food, including fresh produce, dairy, and meat products.
As described by Jennifer Apostol, longtime employee and Director of REPLENISH, the hub of the REPLENISH “wheel” has a number of supporting spokes. With the warehouse at the center, six categories of support activities make REPLENISH the vibrant network it is: food acquisition; food distribution; resource dissemination; awareness raising; education; food access/accessibility; and policy change and advocacy. Each category is comprised of a range of partners serving their own mission, including schools and community organizations, religious groups, Farms to Families, and Famers Against Hunger, SNAP benefits, and local government. The County’s Extension Agency’s Master Gardener program operates Rows for the Hungry, a volunteer-led production garden that generates fresh in-season produce for distribution through REPLENISH. As we discuss below, Share Your Foodways supports the food access and equity category of REPLENISH’s efforts.
As someone who has been with REPLENISH since its early days, Apostol has seen the power of community and collaboration at work, and encourages anyone interested in fighting food insecurity in their neighborhood to volunteer at a local food pantry. Indeed, Apostol made it clear that the work of REPLENISH would not be possible without the assistance of the workers and volunteers who have dedicated their time, energy, and talents to help nourish their neighbors for over 26 years.
RELENISH’s tagline, “nourishing neighbors,” is meant quite literally: though food remains at the center of REPLENISH partner activities, each of these partner agencies aim to do more. Food pantries who partner with REPLENISH benefit from the organization’s dedication to education and social services in addition to food distribution. They supply their partners with networking opportunities, resource sharing tools, and nutritional guidelines for clients. On a broader level, they are dedicated advocates for programs and policies intended to combat both food insecurity and poverty. When an individual enters a pantry, they encounter an environment aimed at addressing the needs of the person through a holistic lens.
The film features interviews with several staff at Unity Square Community Center, which is just one of the REPLENISH partner agencies that nourishes neighbors. Located in a former firehouse in the heart of New Brunswick, Unity Square serves its community through food distribution, housing support, arts and family activities, computer access, health and vision clinics, pro bono legal advice, a community garden, and teen programs, among other activities. At the time of filming, in July 2022, Unity Square was developing a “Client Choice Resource Center:” a grocery store-style food distribution area where residents may select the items that appeal most to them rather than being given a set supply of foodstuffs. This community mainstay works with residents to determine their local needs and meet them whenever possible.
In the words of another REPLENISH partner, Elijah’s Promise, “Food Changes Lives.” We took this idea to heart when developing the Share Your Foodways initiative in early 2020. In recognizing the escalating need for food, personal protective equipment, and job security, staff at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County used our resources to develop outdoor murals, first responder appreciation displays, and online programming.
Within the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage, our conversation quickly turned to food. Share Your Foodways developed from the simple question: “how can we use folklife to address food equity and food security?” As detailed in the film, Share Your Foodways celebrates the food traditions of Central New Jersey while providing local families access to recipes and ingredients that reflect their needs and cultures. In an online series, community cooks share their foodways traditions through video tutorials, printable recipe cards, and chef bios, which are made available in both English and Spanish. One hundred food kits for each tutorial, along with a bilingual, laminated recipe card, are given free to families through REPLENISH’s network of partner pantries.
At their core, food and folklife are intertwined. Community and individual health of all kinds directly connect to food security. Access to food affects every aspect of our lives, not only basic nutrition but also mental health, school and activity engagement, as well as job performance. Share Your Foodways began with three goals in mind: to celebrate the vibrant foodways of Central New Jersey; to destigmatize the use of food pantries; and to feed people. To date, 500 recipe kits have been distributed to local families, with several more videos still in production and more to be filmed.
To watch the cooking tutorials, learn about additional Share Your Foodways guest cooks, and how you can support REPLENISH, visit the program’s webpage. Share Your Foodways is produced by the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, with support from the Middlesex County Board of County Commissioners, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the AFC through this film series collaboration. We hope you enjoy the film!