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Small Grants With Big Impact for New Jersey Communities

Penni Trionfo, left, program coordinator, and volunteer Joan Pierson, right, chat with community members receiving free fresh produce in Flemington, thanks to a grant from the AARP Community Challenge program.
Photo by Erica Seryhm Lee

For five months last year—in rain, shine and even snow—a free seniors-only produce market, held in a Flemington parking lot, drew dozens of attendees. For some, the Wednesday morning event was their only outing of the week.

The market was part of Cooks & Books, a program of the Harvest Family Success Center funded by a $14,250 AARP Community Challenge grant. The bag of produce, meant to boost residents’ intake of healthy fruits and vegetables, included a special item of the day, along with cooking instructions, said Penni Trionfo, program coordinator.

“Then when they come back, we’d ask, ‘Did you try the quinoa?’ ” Trionfo said. “For them it’s a very personal experience.”

Funds for Cooks & Books came from one of 184 grants awarded to localities and organizations nationwide last year, including three in New Jersey, through the fourth annual AARP Community Challenge. There were more than 2,800 applications.

The grants fund small projects that help make localities more livable for everyone, said Christine Newman, AARP New Jersey community outreach manager.

“The program is really intended to help communities make immediate, quick-action improvements that can then jump-start long-term progress,” she said.

Along with free produce, Cooks & Books provided books to borrow or keep as a way to help older adults fill long hours at home.

More than groceries

The shared experiences of cooking new recipes and reading the same books turned Cooks & Books into more than a produce program, Trionfo said. It became an outdoor, socially distant bonding event that alleviated isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This isn’t for a bag of groceries,” Trionfo said. “It’s about getting these people out of their homes and making them feel like people again.”

The Metuchen Downtown Alliance also used its $19,000 AARP Community Challenge grant to bring people together safely. The group’s ambitious plan was to close a lane to traffic on a block of downtown New Street to make space for socially distanced outdoor dining and gathering.

The so-called New Streetery features 100 dining tables, plus barriers, lighting and heaters. It’s meant to draw people to Metuchen’s walkable business district and to help businesses affected by the pandemic, said Isaac Kremer, executive director of the alliance.

The AARP grant helped generate more than $655,000 in funds from other sources, which was used to support businesses and costs related to COVID-19, Kremer said. “We’ve proven how a small amount of resources, when properly managed, can lead to a far greater amount of resources coming in.”

Trenton Health Team received a $21,535 Community Challenge grant to pilot a bike-share program geared toward older adults.

The grant funded two dozen bicycles and tricycles—sourced from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Mercer County Bike Exchange, said Matthew Broad, Trenton Health Team’s community health and wellness manager. He said the grant could lead to an expanded bike-share program.

Localities and groups can apply now for 2021 AARP Community Challenge grants at

Christina Hernandez Sherwood is a writer living in Collingswood, N.J.

More on Community Challenge grants:

About The AARP Community Challenge (2021)

About AARP New Jersey
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