Program Spotlight

Program Spotlight | Kula Urban Farm – Rooted in Community | June 2019

On a Friday afternoon in May, Gail Dixson, her neice Myleah, 8, and nephews Shamar, 10, and Isaan, 12, joined Kula Farm manager Lisa Bagwell in planting radishes, collard greens, and a rainbow garden of orange and yellow marigolds and red salvia in the back yard of Bethel AME Church’s Community Center on Atkins Avenue.

Bethel and Kula Farm are in their first season of transforming the land adjacent to the farm into a garden to grow produce for the church to give out to the community. The Dixson cousins and other children in the church’s Young People Department have made working in the garden a youth project centered on learning and giving back.

For a number of years, Interfaith Neighbors has been actively engaged in offering programs to help Asbury Park’s West Side community residents develop a healthy, hopeful community. The Kula Urban Farm and Farm Without Borders delivers community programming directed at nutrition, healthier living, as well as helping to develop jobs for area residents.

Now in its fourth full season, the Kula Farm can still come as a surprise to many coming upon its greenhouse at 115 Atkins Avenue, across from Springwood Park. Few expect to see such a farm in the city of Asbury Park. But like its sister, Kula Café, which opened in April 2013, the state-of-the-art greenhouse, seasonal beds and community gardens have taken hold in Asbury Park, providing fresh produce for the café, selling produce to local restaurants and the public, and providing harvested free vegetables for the community. The farm sells plants to those who can afford it and gives plants to those who can’t. It invites all to visit and encourages guests to grow food for their households.

But, what still might not be well known is the day in, day out progress Kula Farm has made in a most essential mission–providing job training and actual paid jobs for residents, some of whom have gone on to supervisory positions at the farm. Those jobs are the result of generous philanthropic support aallowing Interfaith Neighbors to reach across Springwood Avenue and use vacant land to grow food for the community. As of May of this year, 32 residents have worked in the 60 hour paid program and five have been hired to longer-term positions.

Ewelina Makowska, Asst. Greenhouse Manager with Neptune Resident Naomi Paynter

Ewelina Makowska is assistant greenhouse manager, and Doni Gray is assistant hydroponic grower. Elizabeth Cao is supervisor and community liaison in charge at the Farm Without Borders. Robert Beatty and Charles Ade also have held the long-term positions.

Elizabeth Cao, Farm Without Borders Supervisor & Community Liaison

For Ewelina Makowska , the greenhouse is her terrain where she’s an expert in managing the micro-green growing system and the vertical hydroponic towers. “The farm’s taken root in the community,” Ewelina said. “Anyone who lives around here and has a garden comes by to talk. Engaging the community, I think that’s most important.’’
Liz Cao has become the face of the Farm Without Borders, maintaining the community gardens where people can come and take what they need and also participate in planting. Liz had no previous experience in gardening but has taken to it.
Doni Gray, works 15 hours a week and takes three buses to get to work. “The thing I like about the job is the life cycle, going from seeds to growing up and turning into food,” he said. “It helps me to see the transference in life.”
The continued growth and success at the farm can be attributed to Farm Managers Lisa Bagwell and Thijs van Oosterhout. They’ve built a farm business next to the café that each season brings fresh ideas, new knowledge, and new ideas to attract new visitors and benefit area residents.

“I like to be able to engage with as many residents in the neighborhood as I can,” Lisa said. “And, I like to be able to transform unused land into a productive garden and grow vegetables.” Lisa came to the farm with community garden and farm experience and is also known for her popular trash assemblage artwork. Her passion for gardening, art, and people are on display at the farm.
Thijs is part of a farming family from the Netherlands. He is an environmental scientist, aquatic ecologist and a professor at Georgian Court University. He focuses on the science and the details of the greenhouse operations. He spoke of adding Epsom salt to provide more magnesium for the plants and increasing CO2 to speed plant growth. The greenhouse seems at times to be his laboratory. “Our goal is to make the farm self- sustainable,” he says.

Back on a Friday in May, Alan Powell visited the farm and took home some okra, peppers and tomato plants to join the collard greens, kale, strawberries, cabbage, butter lettuce, melons and pumpkins he has planted this year. Alan, a retiree from Neptune, comes each season to get some growing tips, seeds and plants for his garden.

The farm is open and operating Monday through. Saturday from 10 to 3 p.m.

Program Spotlight | Come Join Us on the March for Meals! | March 2019

Statistics warning of the consequences of malnutrition on the lives of America’s seniors are very real and sometimes overwhelming.

Our country’s senior population is set to double from 58 million to 114 million over the next four decades, outpacing current resources that serve vulnerable older adults. Here in New Jersey, 21% of our residents are seniors.

Nine million seniors face the threat of hunger now. And 6.9 million elders live in poverty, creating a reality that after paying for housing, utilities and medical expenses, leaves very little money for food. There are 237,839 New Jersey seniors threatened by hunger.

Each March, the national advocacy organization Meals on Wheels America shines a light on both the need for funding and also the great work that community-based Meals on Wheels organizations are doing to address that risk of hunger and isolation for America’s seniors through the March for Meals Advocacy Campaign.

“People need help, and not everyone can do it for themselves. That’s what we’re here to do,” says Dante Agresti, the new director of Interfaith’s Meals on Wheels program.

According to Meals on Wheels America, local programs “have delivered more than just nutritious meals to homebound seniors in virtually every community across the country…The staff and volunteers delivering those meals provide a vital lifeline and connection to the community which are sometimes all it takes to keep our senior neighbors at home where they want to be.”

Approximately 300,000 meals are prepared and delivered by Interfaith Neighbors to seniors and disabled persons annually, preparing approximately 1,100 meals each day.

We operate 70 routes to deliver hot lunches and, for some participants, their breakfasts. Each day, our kitchen staff, our paid drivers and those of the approximately 500 volunteers who have a shift that day make our program work.

No one is required to pay for their lunches, but donations of $2.50 a meal or $12.50 a week are gratefully appreciated. And, although impoverished recipients are especially susceptible to not getting the nutrition they need, income level is not a factor in the requirements for receiving Meals on Wheels. Rather, one needs to be at least 60 years old, not able to cook or shop, and basically be homebound.

Interfaith’s program is funded by Monmouth County, U.S. Department of Agriculture, donations from meal participants, and generous donors.

We welcome new volunteers who typically deliver one day a week on stops that take about an hour. “Often volunteers sign up because they’ve known someone who received meals,” says Margaret McGinn, site manager at the Red Bank Senior Center.

“The people we deliver to let us into their lives in a kind of personal way,” she said. “We see them on days when they’re struggling and days when they’re good.’ One trait of volunteers McGinn especially admires is being flexible with the weather.

“I’ve had volunteers who come back soaking wet, or bundled up from the cold, or so hot from the heat of summer,” she said. “But almost always they put their hands up and say: ‘I’m happy—everyone’s fed.”

Program Spotlight | SOAR: Training for Careers, Not Just Jobs | November 2018

The goal that binds all of Interfaith Neighbors’ programs together is seeing families and individuals attain and maintain the economic well-being and independence everyone wants in life. It also is the goal of a new and promising employment program known as SOAR, now under development by Interfaith Neighbors. SOAR is an intensive, long-term employment and career readiness program for young adults from economically challenged communities in Monmouth County.

“SOAR is serious about providing the necessary skills, education and a trusted support network to facilitate entry into meaningful career tracks,” said Roger Boyce, director of Interfaith’s Business Development Center.

The program looks to connect an individual’s natural abilities with meaningful careers in area industries that have a high demand for workers in today’s economy. Examples are healthcare, information technology, telecommunications, banking and finance, and hospitality.

SOAR will provide skill development and training specific to a certain job and industry.  Interfaith Neighbors, through partnerships with local providers, will assist those being trained to overcome personal challenges that have restricted their employability in the past. Those obstacles can include childcare, lack of a driver’s license, or a criminal record that can be expunged.

Interfaith Neighbors is not looking to replicate existing industry training but rather make area apprenticeship, certification and training programs accessible to participants. SOAR will support them as they go through the application and financing process, and tutor participants during certification training.

“We’re not trying to duplicate anything,” said Semaj Vanzant, Sr., program manager for SOAR.  “We’re just trying to fill in that missing component.”

To make this work, Interfaith is establishing relationships with specific local area employers in industries where demand for skilled employees is more than the existing availability of qualified applicants. Once a participant is placed in a specific job, SOAR will continue providing case management and career development assistance to both the participant and employer.

One innovative and key component will see each participant have his or her own success coach, a person in the industry who will commit to a relationship of at least 24 months to ensure the employee has sustained success and professional growth in the new career.

Interfaith Neighbors believes this new approach can provide successful targeted employment training, job placement and career growth. The first participants will enter the program during the first half of 2019. The program is expected to be fully operational by 2020 and see 30 to 50 participants graduate each year.

Program Spotlight | Interfaith Neighbors Business Development Center Food Entrepreneur Program | September  2018

Entrepreneur Ryan Nelson was about as strong a candidate as they come to be successful once he set out to bring a family concept for an organic and vegan energy bar to market.

Nelson, 26, of Ocean Township, thrives on the hard work that it has  taken to  get his Viva Energy Bar on the shelves of over 100 retailers in the tri-state area since launching his business a year ago. He has since brought on two associates who continue to work with him tirelessly as they bake, package, and deliver bars by the thousands.

Nelson was in Interfaith Neighbors Business Development Center’s (BDC) first group of potential entrepreneurs in a program that  is partnering with Rutgers University’s Food Innovation Center to  help teams or individuals create a product and bring it to market.

“I grew up in and around the organic retail industry and learned at an early age the values of entrepreneurship and the enjoyment that comes from building a company based around a fun culture,” Nelson said.

His family owns Dean’s Natural  Market in Ocean Township, Shrewsbury, Basking Ridge and Chester, and has been a supporter of youth development programs in Asbury Park and of other nonprofits.

Ryan’s entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic have helped him in launching his successful business. Instilling those values and skills is a big part of the Interfaith BDC program.

“A lesson that  we try to teach is there’s a lot more to getting a product to market than just having a great concept,” said Gillian Edgar, Business Development Center Associate.  “We give all of the teams the same guidance that we gave Ryan, and Ryan was able to capitalize on that because of his work ethic and what he could bring to the table.”

Of his time in the program, Nelson says, “It was a stimulating four months where I was able to build the brand and different flavor profiles. If you have a product that you want to bring to life, the Food Entrepreneur Program can be the stepping stone to take your product from idea to  fruition.”

The organic energy bars come in three flavors: Oats, Nuts & Chocolate; Peanut Butter & Chocolate; and Coffee. Viva Bar’s mission is to bring the highest quality ingredients together to provide their consumers with an awesome-tasting clean product.

Program Spotlight | The Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program is transforming the West Side of Asbury Park | May 2018

Interfaith Neighbors learned early this year that its West Side Neighborhood Revitalization Plan has been funded for a seventh round of state Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit (NRTC) funding. The targeted projects funded in this round total $985,000.

Over the past eleven years, Interfaith Neighbors has participated in the NRTC program receiving a total of $6.7 million to carry out its own projects and fund initiatives in the plan led by community partners. The funding supports housing, economic development, employment, recreation and family stabilization projects for the West Side community.

“NRTC funding has made it possible for us to have  a real impact on the rebuilding the West Side,” says Patrick Durkin, Interfaith’s Director of Real Estate, who came on staff in 2007 to administer the program.

Interfaith had already begun building affordable homes in a partnership with New Jersey Natural Gas.  When the NRTC program was launched, it allowed Interfaith to expand its construction programs.  To date, 44 for sale, affordable housing units have been built.  In 2012, Interfaith Neighbors cut the ribbon, opening the three-story Springwood Center.  NRTC funding would also help make the Interfaith operations of the Business Development Center, the Kula Café and the Kula Urban Farm a reality.

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Parkview AP Development Concept

Durkin said the state program came at a good time because Asbury Park had many vacant parcels in a scattered site plan that the city conveyed at a nominal fee for the development of affordable housing.

“Having this money allowed us to increase our production of houses and focus at times on micro neighborhoods,’’ Durkin said. “We built five houses on vacant lots on Borden Avenue.  On DeWitt Avenue, south of Springwood, we built six single family homes and a two-family house.  It changed the landscape.”

The NRTC Program, administered by the NJ Department of Community Affairs, gives corporations a 100 percent credit against state taxes for funds the entities invest in the NRTC program. In the most recent award, Interfaith’s corporate investors are: AmerigroupNJ, M&T Bank and Wells Fargo Bank.

“Through the life of the program, there have been a number of investors led by New Jersey Natural Gas, which had been our partner in building affordable houses before NRTC and then supported the NRTC program from the beginning” Durkin said.

The other companies that have invested over the years include JCP&L, PNC Bank, Selective Insurance, Horizon BCBS, NJ American Water and TD Bank.

“NRTC allows public minded corporations who want to make a commitment and make a difference in communities they operate in to make an investment in those communities, and get a tax credit, ” Durkin said.

The newest round of funding is designated to support 11 projects on the West Side of Asbury Park.  Interfaith is poised to start construction on a new homeownership project called Parkview AP homes on Springwood Avenue.   Funding is also designated for construction of a new two-family home for Interfaith’s Pathway to Homeownership Program. Once constructed, two families will save for homeownership by having part of their monthly rent go into an escrow account, which they can use to purchase their own home. Funding also will be used to build a second Rights of Passage home on Prospect Avenue for Covenant House to operate its transitional housing program for young women. The first Rights of Passage home for five young men, built and owned by Interfaith, opened this year.

The NRTC program is also funding the launch of a new Interfaith Neighbors program called Career Corp, which will provide employment paths for local residents to work in area industries and businesses.

Included in this year’s funding is continued support for Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring programs, the Junior Entrepreneur Program run by KYDS and the Boys & Girls Club, Community Affairs Resource Center job placement programs, and Second Baptist Church’s Fine Arts and Technology summer camp.  A newly funded project will be offered by the Showroom, teaching film and editing.   Funding also is designated for continuation of the free Monday night Asbury Park Music Foundation concerts at Springwood Avenue Park.

Over the years, other projects funded  by the program included lights for the Asbury Park Little League field, repairs to restore the Boys and Girls Club swimming pool, a new boxing and fitness center on the second floor of the city’s public works building and a pilot police department video surveillance program.

Program Spotlight | Aging is Not for  the Faint of Heart – That’s Why We Need Meals on Wheels | February 2018

The month of March marks the national Meals on Wheels advocacy event, March for Meals. As a member of Meals on Wheels America and serving all of Monmouth County with the Meals on Wheels program, we hope you will join us.

Advocate because right now, nearly one in every six seniors in this country may not know where their next meal is coming from.

Volunteer and reduce isolation and hunger among your senior neighbors.

Give to ensure that we have the resources we need to serve all that are in need of meals and companionship.

Even the most independent among us, if fortunate to live long enough, may experience a decline in mobility or health that can strip away our independence.  And, it is predicted that seniors as a percentage of the population will grow from 18% to 26% by 2050. Without programs like Meals on Wheels, many seniors can be forced to prematurely trade their homes for nursing facilities.  We can provide a senior Meals on Wheels for an entire year for roughly the same cost as spending one day in the hospital or ten days in a nursing home.

Some deliveries are heartrending: bringing a meal to a man paralyzed from an accident and bound in bed watching movies or an ailing mother in a small apartment with television for company and a cell phone that is her lifeline to a son at work.

Many recipients are up and about at home but no longer able to do their own shopping or cooking. Others are able to leave their home and go to one of our group congregate sites for their lunch meal.

What they all share is what the Meals on Wheels program offers: balanced nutrition, independence and daily interaction that breaks through the loneliness that can set in for many in the later years of their lives.

“Meals on Wheels matters because it keeps elders in their home and out of institutional care,” Sandi Silber, Interfaith’s Director of Nutrition, said. “We also provide daily checks, and sometimes we’re the only people they see on a given day. These elders are not statistics, but are our parents and grandparents.”

Paul McEvily, Co-Executive Director, once said that everyone who works for Interfaith Neighbors in its different programs should take the opportunity once a year to deliver meals to homebound seniors and gain understanding on why Meals on Wheels matters so much.

Nationally, more than 2 million volunteers deliver Meals on Wheels. At Interfaith Neighbors, we have a force of approximately 500 volunteers, kitchen staff and paid drivers who operate the Monmouth County program.

Interfaith Neighbors serves 900 to 1,000 meals a day and an additional 500 breakfasts in areas where needed most to home bound seniors and at seven senior center congregate sites in Asbury Park, Neptune, Howell, Red Bank, Middletown, Keansburg and Keyport.

Interfaith Neighbors has operated the Meals on Wheels Program in Monmouth County since 1991. The program is supported by federal funding through the Monmouth County Office on Aging and through individual, corporate and private foundation support.

Together, we stand and

Together, we deliver.


The Interfaith Neighbors Network