This story was originally published in the May 2017 Princeton Echo.

Kate Festa is the new manager of the Princeton Farmers Market. Opening day is Thursday, May 18.

The Princeton Farmers Market will begin its summer season on Hinds Plaza on Thursday, May 18, with a new manager overseeing operations. In February the JM Group — Jack Morrison’s hospitality company that includes Blue Point Grill, Witherspoon Grill, and Nassau Street Seafood Company — hired Kate Festa, 27, of Colts Neck to replace Meagan McKeever, who left after holding that position since 2014. Festa brings with her a passion for wholesome, local food, a respect for farmers, experience in food health education, and a background in advertising design and marketing.

“I’ve always been obsessed with food,” Festa confesses. “But it was really in college that I became very informed about the true goodness of eating local and the negatives of, for instance, how long some of our foods take to get here, where they’re coming from, and how they’re treated.” Festa earned a B.S. in art direction and graphic design from the University of Miami in Florida in 2012.

“Having a personal history of health problems, I started eating the best I could and buying the best quality foods I could afford to see if they would benefit me,” she says. “I saw a huge difference and that is what really spiked my interest.”

She learned about farming, gardening, and local food movements, and did volunteer graphic design for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“Although I went to school for advertising and design, upon graduating I knew that I didn’t even want to be in that space unless I could do advertising and design for ‘good’ companies that were not lying about their food or their health products — not lying about anything,” she says. “So I shied away from working for any big agency, and instead did inhouse designing and marketing for companies that I believed in and wanted to help.”

After returning home to New Jersey, that work included designing and producing an ad campaign for McCormick, the spice powerhouse. She laughs as she recalls, “The one and only ad agency I worked for — even though I swore I would not — was a local agency back in Monmouth County that had health food companies as its niche.”

That company, the Sawtooth Group, produced the McCormick “Pure Tastes Better” campaign. “So that’s why I took on the role as art director and got to help design a campaign that catered toward millennials and younger generations. McCormick is a brand that’s respected and loved by older generations, but they wanted to be seen as hipper and to be the choice of younger people, too.

“You know, you go to a supermarket and see the new organic brands in their fancy glass bottles and your eye goes towards that. But McCormick wants everyone to know that they’ve been around for so long for a reason: that all their products are just as pure as the next new organic product. They’re doing well with the campaign, and it was fun to put a new, fresh spin on an old brand and kind of kick it up a little bit.”

Festa also worked for a handful of health, gardening, and nutrition start-ups. “I did a lot of freelancing with small companies that were trying to sell things that were wholesome,” she says. “At each step I met people who eventually led me to this job at the Princeton market, where I can use all my skills and past experiences. And use my desire to interact with people and help farmers have a sustainable living while they’re also helping other people by providing good food.”

Among those start-ups is Oasis Backyard Farms in Colts Neck, which designs, constructs, and maintains organic gardens, including large-scale gardens and farmettes. “I began with them last year, after I left the advertising agency. I wanted to learn how to grow food, because I was so passionate about it,” Festa explains.

Working alongside founder Renee Mongiovi through last November, she constructed beds, planted them, and harvested. “I really learned how to grow every type of vegetable and a lot of fruit.” In September she received certification in holistic health coaching from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Last summer she also worked as a nutrition educator in low-income areas around the state, through Rutgers University’s summer NJ SNAP program (formerly Food Stamps). “We would go to farmers markets where they accept SNAP and set up a tent and demo lessons on food. It was great to see we were able to get through to a lot of people about what they could do with the food they could buy at the market. We were sent everywhere: the Ironbound section of Newark, the downtown Newark Farm Market, Paterson.”

All these qualifications persuaded Jack Morrison that Festa was right person to manage the Princeton Farmers Market. “Kate’s resume reflects an entrepreneurial spirit, a passion for positive efforts, and shares our commitment to creating and building a local economic, social and environmental sustainable community,” Morrison says. “Kate brings with her some great ideas to furthering the market’s mission on how we make available wholesome food sources while educating our children and their families on the healthy benefits of sourcing local.”

Among the most visible changes to the market this years is a change of hours, which are now from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Thursday beginning May 18. “As far as vendors, we have a lot of our old vendors coming back,” Festa says, “and we have a few new ones in the mix.”
Among the new vendors is Blue Moon Acres, which is renowned especially for its micro-greens and the organic rice the Lyons family grows on its farm in Pennington (see the November, 2016, Echo for more on the Lyons’ rice).

Other new vendors: Sweets by Lovey, based in Kendall Park and which had a table at the market’s winter market, indoors at the Princeton public library; All You Need is Cake of Ocean Grove, which sells seven flavors of coconut macaroons; Holly Jolly Jams, which produces a line of small-batch, low sugar jams out of Eatontown; and the all-natural, no-preservatives peanut butters and almond butters from Nutty Novelties of Souderton, PA. Among its specialty flavors are cinnamon, chocolate, and cappuccino.

Festa has been working since February on planning and putting together the forthcoming summer market, which sees an average of 500 to 1,000 shoppers during the season. It will continue to feature live music, health and wellness speakers, and the taste-of-the-market series with the library, as well as the possibility of market yoga classes.

As she stepped in to manage the winter market, Festa also was making visits to the farms that participate in the market, such as the Lima Family Farms in Hillsborough, and spent time acquainting herself with all the participating entities.

“I couldn’t believe how kind and nice all the vendors and the shoppers are,” she says of the local community. “There’s an excited community feeling and it’s nice to see how supportive the town is of eating locally and supporting local farmers.”

In terms of growing the market even more, Festa is working on helping vendors accept SNAP in order to broaden the market’s clientele. “As much community engagement as we can get, as much cultural involvement — that’s our goal,” she says. She is grateful that many groups have already reached out and encourages anyone with ideas to contact her at princetonfarmersmarketnj@gmail.com.

Festa grew up in Colts Neck. Her mother recently retired as a reading specialist and is volunteering as a teacher of ESL. “My dad has been running a retail hardware business for 47 years, a family-owned company in Brooklyn that he’s been with since he was in his 20s,” she says.

“Growing up, I would always help my dad out with advertising for the store. I was probably in middle school when I taught myself how to use all the design programs. I started doing my own advertising and marketing for him, so I wanted to go to college for that, and Miami had an advertising major. A lot of schools only have a marketing communications major, but they had a very specific advertising major, and I chose the art direction track.”

In August Festa will get married in Red Bank to Vincenzo Franze, who grew up in Ocean Township and who teaches high school physical education and health and is a soccer coach. The two met at a restaurant in Red Bank and will honeymoon in Europe.

Festa hasn’t turned her back completely on advertising and design. “With Jack [Morrison], I help out with their restaurants and a little bit for their seafood market and for all their businesses,” she says.

“My longing when I was a designer, though, was to do more interacting with people as my career and more helping out — having more direct impact than when I was helping brands. That’s why I was interested in this position.”