New Jersey is the Garden State, and even so, its exemplary produce often goes underappreciated. However, for the last half-decade, small shops and restaurants with a focus on local, sustainably sourced ingredients have slowly climbed the ladder of popularity within the dining scene. This culmination has led to a more conscious style of eating and cooking. At Illuminate Food in Montclair, NJ, food is made better. With sustainability and locality at the vanguard, Illuminate Food puts an emphasis on community that provides a fresh, new way to eat.
It all started in April of 2020 when Danielle Schwab decided to turn her passions into a business. Schwab was committed to getting more people to focus on local eating. This could mean anything from locally grown vegetables to cheese made just a few miles down the road.
The phrase local eating is often thought to be limiting, but Schwab was determined to put an end to that stigma. Previously, she started a blog called Illuminate Supply Chains, which was built to educate on the topic of sustainability. With unprecedented events occurring, and restaurants being forced to close their doors, Schwab knew there was an excess of local foods that would go to waste. Additionally, she knew that people in her own community needed a way to obtain food without leaving their home. The pieces added up, and Illuminate Food was born originally as a service for fresh produce to be delivered to your doorstep.
Conceptually speaking, Illuminate has only existed for just over two years. However, it has been several years in the making. With a background in supply chains, Schwab shifted focus to agricultural practice in 2018, later traveling across the contiguous U.S. to visit farms—educating both others and herself.
Upon returning, Schwab teamed up with Zone 7, an NJ-based distributor working exclusively with small, local farms, to put together boxes and meal kits consisting of produce and dairy with a focus on seasonality. While seasonality might seem like a minuscule issue to focus a business model on, committing to using what’s in season means you not only deliver consistently great products, but you embolden local farmers and your surrounding community.
Schwab’s philosophy is quite simple; if we focus more on eating in season, then surrounding farms can continue to produce enough food to feed us. A strategy that could work to tackle multiple issues at once, ranging from the overall health of your community to environmental malpractice.
This community investment paid off in more ways than one. In January of 2021, NJ resident, Nicole Kleinbaum, became a customer of Illuminate and quickly grew fascinated with the concept as a whole. With a background in tech and sales, Kleinbaum especially took an interest in the operation from a sales perspective. Not only were the weekly produce boxes working to make Kleinbaum eat more consciously, but local produce became something of an obsession.
Later that year, a trip to Florida solidified Kleinbaum’s need to get involved in the business. “I went to Florida and wanted to buy oranges, but could only find ones shipped in from California,” Kleinbaum told me, “I couldn’t figure out why they would be outsourcing oranges in a state that is supposed to have an abundant supply,” she continued. This epiphany energized Kleinbaum, and when returning to New Jersey, she took the first open position she saw at Illuminate. Now, a year later, Kleinbaum and Schwab combine their genius every day as co-owners of Illuminate Food.
Each week, there’s a new recipe posted to the Illuminate site, and the produce box for that week contains what you need to make it. The recipes are unique each week and are anything but repetitive. A roasted broccoli rabe with lemon anchovy dressing sandwich was a recent recipe on the site. Philip Buccellato (who goes by @saucesandwich_ on Instagram) combines local broccoli rabe, Jersey Girl Cheese mozzarella, and imported anchovies to make this bright, and simple sandwich. By consulting chefs and recipe writers, Illuminate provides a helpful tool for people who may struggle to come up with dinner ideas each week. And not only that, but the produce boxes help to expand customers’ palates and cooking repertoire.
In March of 2022, after nearly two years of delivering recipe boxes and produce to hundreds of customers, Illuminate Food opened a brick-and-mortar storefront in Montclair, NJ. The store serves as an outlet to buy food without purchasing the box subscription. If something is in season locally, you can count on Illuminate to carry it.
Along with produce, the storefront offers an array of NJ-made products such as Jersey Girl Cheese, Josh Chocolate, French Dad Boulangerie, and Babka Bailout. For Schwab and Kleinbaum, it has never been about competing against local businesses, but rather emboldening them and strengthening the community as a whole. This helps to build towards the goal of increasing the number of people eating locally. And for every day Illuminate Food is open, that number grows.
The storefront, nestled on the corner of Walnut and Grove street, is a great place to learn more about what you eat. On any given Saturday, Schwab and Kleinbaum invite local makers into the store to give tastings and classes on their product. Take Gaia’s Greenhouse, for example, an NJ-based seed shop specializing in produce that is local and native to the area. In addition to selling seedlings at the shop, they host tastings and provide information on how you can grow the vegetables and fruit efficiently at home.
It is no secret that many agricultural practices are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Factory farming mass produces food that is nutritionally worse, less delicious, and of more detriment to the environment. However, juxtaposed is a movement that is gaining momentum, which accentuates the benefits of focusing on locally made foods within your diet. At the forefront of this movement are businesses like Illuminate Food, where the philosophy could not be more simple; eat locally and in season. In the Garden State, local eating is more accessible than ever, and there is no better time to start your journey than now.