BRIDGETON – Developers of a new local community garden say it will help provide nutritious food for migrant and immigrant workers who cannot afford to buy the fruits and vegetables they help grow.

The Bridgeton Organic Community Garden will also help ease another problem related to the city's federal designation as a "food desert," an area where residents have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. People can help with the work at the garden and share its harvest.

"In our first growing season, our community garden is a result of neighborhood families working together to address the need for healthy and affordable food options," said Rachel Winograd, food justice coordinator for the Farmworker Support Committee.

The committee goes by the designation of CATA. That is an acronym for its formal Spanish name, El Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas.

CATA was founded by migrant farm workers in South Jersey in 1979. The organization is governed by and comprised of migrant and immigrant workers, with their efforts geared toward creating better living and working conditions for themselves and their families.

Winograd said there is a misconception that migrant workers have access to the healthy fruits and vegetables they help grow.

"They can't afford to buy the food they are harvesting," she said.

Also especially difficult is the often increased cost of organic produce for migrant workers, Winograd said.

"The garden provides families with food that is grown without pesticides, but with the love and care of … neighbors," she said.

State wage and hour laws require all New Jersey farm laborers age 18 and older to earn at least the state's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. That rate also applies to farm laborers who work on a piece-rate basis. Labor on a farm is exempt from the premium overtime provision of the laws.

Children must be at least 12 years old to work on a farm. Minors are not covered by the state's minimum wage, but by federal wage and hour rates.

Pay statistics for New Jersey farm laborers were not available. A report released in August by the Texas-based National Center for Farmworker Health states that about 23 percent of farmworker families in the United States have total family income levels below national poverty guidelines.

Both Winograd and state Department of Labor and Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerri Gatling said it is difficult to accurately count the number of migrant workers who labor on New Jersey farms each year. That is because those laborers continually move to different areas and farms in the state as the April through September growing season progresses, they said.

Gatling said the state estimates there will be between 12,000 to 14,000 migrant workers on New Jersey farms this year. The largest concentration of those workers in South Jersey is in Cumberland and Atlantic counties, she said.

The new community garden - which is open to CATA members or others who help work in the facility- is already producing its first crops, she said. They include vegetables such as radishes, lettuce and peas, she said.

Mayor Albert Kelly said the garden, located at 80 Church St., is critical to improving the quality of life for the city's immigrant and low-wage work force, and helping to reverse the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food desert designation.

"Many Bridgeton families don't have the physical or economic access to healthy, fresh and organic vegetables," he said.

That puts those residents at increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, Kelly said.

The garden, which will be formally dedicated at noon Sunday, also replaces what was a vacant lot, something that city officials say they appreciate.

"CATA and the residents in (that) general neighborhood that took the lead with the garden project have had a huge impact on the neighborhood, as evidenced by what they did with (that) vacant lot," Kelly said. "I hope to see more community groups take the initiative as CATA has."

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

To learn more

More information about CATA can be found at www.cata-farmworkers.org, or by calling 856-881-2507.