Jersey City Farm Employing Former Prisoners May Have to Find New Location After Land DisputeBy Matt Hunger • Sep 16th, 2011 • Category: Featured, Food, News
Less than half a year after it began tending to an earth box farm on Kearney Avenue, it appears the Friends of the Lifers Youth Corporation will soon have to find somewhere else for its innovative farming program after a falling out with the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA).
Taking on an urban farming project was a great fit for the Jersey City-based organization, which reintegrates former prisoners into society. The farm program helps individuals gain marketable employment skills while at the same time bringing fresh and healthy food to a Greenville community that desperately needs it (not to mention turning what was once a blighted empty lot into a working farm).
The Friends broke ground on the farm, which is on Kearney Avenue between Ocean Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, in May, and it recently began harvesting the bounty and selling it to local residents via an on-site farmers market. But now it says it is being “evicted” from the site by the JCRA. While the agency disagrees with this characterization, it seems clear that farm will have to find a new site.
Healy administration officials and the JCRA have pledged to help the group find a new home, but that did not prevent many of its members and leaders from speaking out at this week’s City Council meeting about what they say is an injustice committed against them by the JCRA.
“We’re being asked to remove our workers from the lot so the JCRA can initiate the same program with an outside organization not connected with the community,” Friends research analyst and program administrator Brooke Hansson said at Wednesday’s meeting. “There are many lots in the area — why are they taking this one?”
The disagreement boils down to exactly what Friends executive director Annette Joyner and JCRA executive director Robert Antonicello may have agreed to when the project was first conceived.
Joyner says the JCRA leader is reneging on his initial promises to give the Friends the previously vacant and blighted lot. She also says Antonicello is bringing new organizations — including the Jersey City Food Co-op and One City, a non-profit run by the JCRA — into the mix.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Antonicello remembers things differently. He says the JCRA never promised the land to the Friends, but rather allowed the group to operate there with the understanding that eventually other organizations would be involved. He says he initiated the project when he learned about a similar program in Newark called the Prodigal Sons and Daughters, and he wanted the JCRA to get involved with growing local organic produce that could be donated to the needy.
“100 percent of what One City raises goes to charity,” he says, adding that all operational costs are absorbed by the JCRA. “We always intended One City to be in charge of the program.”
He thought the Friends would be a great addition to the program, but says there was never any plan to donate the farm plot to the group.
“Why would we give away land when we wanted a farm there to be run by One City? The JCRA already owned the land; it wouldn’t make sense to give up the property only to look for some more elsewhere,” he says. “We wanted to get the Friends of the Lifers involved, but had no intention of giving them that lot.”
Everyone seems to agree that in February of this year, Antonicello brought Joyner — and city officials like planning director Bob Cotter and Ward F councilwoman Viola Richardson — to an urban greenhouse hydroponics farm in Orange, where Prodigal Sons and Daughters was growing organic produce to be both sold and donated.
Antonicello says that he expressed his interest in bringing a similar program to Jersey City, and that although he did not have a firm vision in mind at the start of the project, he’d hoped to bring in a number of different groups to work together on this project – a fact he says he made clear from the get-go.
“We had Jersey City Food Co-op on board to buy one-third of the produce, we wanted to have one-third of the produce donated, and one-third to be sold to whoever wanted to buy it,” he said of a plan he had suggested to Joyner.
But Joyner says she was not interested in working with either the Food Co-op or One City, since the Friends had already developed a working model and preferred to stick to that.
“They want to do what we’re doing already. We give crops to a food pantry, we’re selling produce to raise funds for our business so we can pay the food handlers that are working on our farm,” she says.
The JCRA, Joyner says, is trying to control how her company operated and failed to account for the Friends’ primary goal: to reintegrate ex-offenders into a community.
“Why would the Jersey City Food Co-op be a part of this when you have to buy a membership?” she asks. “Where does that fall into job creation? We’re employing a population of men and women who are hard to employ. Nobody wants to hire them. This was our model.”
In addition to the job training, workers at the Friends’ garden receive $240 each week as a stipend, which Joyner says is often used by ex-offenders to pay fines and to help put their lives back together.
One worker, 46-year old Mark Graham, spoke at this week’s council meeting, describing himself as “one of the faces of the program.” Saying that “job system failed me,” Graham pointed out that the organization was there when he had nowhere else to turn.
“I’ve served 16 years in prison. I came home three years ago and tried everything possible you can do. I got my high school diploma and a driver’s license,” he said, but he still was not able to find work. “The only thing there for me was this program. There are not too many things like this.”
Officials from the city, the JCRA and the Friends of the Lifers are set to meet soon to discuss where the group can move its farm.
Photo courtesy of the Friends of the Lifers Youth Corp
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