New Jersey Learns Participant Case Story

New Jersey Learns Participant Case Story

FEATURE: Christopher Bickel of Livingston, NJ

New Jersey resident Christopher Bickel was a cohort two participant of the New Jersey Learns program and is today an advocate and activist for sustainability in his hometown of Livingston. Chris is the supervisor for Social Studies with the Livingston School District and has more than 16 years of experience in education. He believes that it’s important for his students to have confidence about the way that they naturally think, in his words, "bring a force to the vision that young kids naturally have." According to Chris, young people are aware of the challenges we face and they know that we can’t keep doing things the same way, but by the 5th grade they lose hope that they or anyone can make a real difference. “Elementary school children know that the earth should be nurtured, I want to give that original conviction backbone and make it stick,” he says. While acting as a supervisor of the Strategic Plan for the Board of Education of Livingston, the educator was successful in getting sustainability written into the curriculum. Fundamentally, Chris’ intention is to reaffirm to young kids that their natural instinct is correct and through “sustainabilized” curriculum, he wants to increase awareness of, and participation in activities that contribute to a healthier future.

While his target audience is K-12 students primarily, his reach has expanded overtime as he has become more involved in and passionate about a healthier New Jersey. Chris’ NJ Learns Community Action Plan centered on Eco-Fairs and he has subsequently organized two such events. Notably, he worked with Project Porchlight, a grassroots program in New Jersey, to distribute energy efficient light bulbs to residents during one of the fairs. While happy with the turn-out and action taken to conserve energy, Chris recognized that he was not addressing the thinking that leads to lasting behavioral change. He was intent to "do something a little deeper."  

Chris was one of the first New Jersey Learners to participate in Earthwatch Expeditions for formal educators funded by The Dodge Foundation. Following that experience Chris published the children’s book The Nest Seekers, a primary level children’s book about an Earthwatch Expedition in northwestern Wyoming in April 2012. In it, he makes the connection between human interaction and bird populations in natural habitats. The book is aligned to The Cloud Institute’s EfS Standards, E) Healthy Commons, G) Inventing & Affecting the Future, and I) Strong Sense of Place, as well as relevant NJ State, Common Core and 21st Century Skills standards. Since the release Chris has spoken at several conferences and made numerous book store appearances.

In addition to his work in school, at community fairs, conferences and bookstores, Chris is also active with The Livingston Green Team, Livingston Citizens Institute and the Sustainability Steering Committee and is working with the Environmental Commission to develop a 5-year strategic plan. Chris estimates that through his speaking engagements and other events, he has reached more than 20,000 New Jersey community members, and he is just getting started!

related story: Donate fresh food? There's an app for that, coming soon from a N.J. man - and former New Jersey Learner! (By Eunice Lee)

Donate fresh food? There's an app for that, coming soon from a N.J. man - and former New Jersey Learner! (By Eunice Lee)

Reposted from:

food-app-livingston-nj.JPGLivingston resident and volunteer Chris Bickel knows what it's like to go hungry. He spent eight months homeless as a teenager.

ESSEX COUNTY — Want to donate more fresh food to your local pantry? Talk to Livingston resident Chris Bickel — he is working on an app for that.

An active volunteer with local pantries and the first townwide Food Day coming up on Wednesday, Bickel is raising funds to build a mobile app that’s a new twist on old-fashioned giving to food banks.

His app idea, which has gained traction with local pantries, basically creates a "virtual refrigerator" on your smart phone or tablet. The app makes it possible to donate money for healthful foods or actually select the foods — tomatoes, green beans, a dozen eggs.

"The fresh stuff is really what’s going to make people feel better," he said.

Eileen Sweeny, coordinator of Pantry Partners for United Way of Northern New Jersey, has been in talks with Bickel about developing the app and believes it will increase healthier options in pantries beyond Livingston.

If the donor gives money, the donation will be sent directly to the designated pantry or soup kitchen for purchasing fresh food. If the donor purchases, say, two bags of apples or three heads of lettuce, it will be delivered directly to the designated charity by participating stores. Several grocers already have expressed interest, Bickel said.

"I think it has enormous potential," said Sweeny, noting that three years ago United Way began its own push for more items like whole wheat pasta or low-sodium canned vegetables. "It could change what’s in food pantries and soup kitchens across the country."

The app will also feature a dashboard that shows in real time what a charity’s greatest needs are using charts and graphs. Bickel said he needs to raise a few thousand dollars to get the app professionally developed.

Livingston volunteer Chris Bickel knows what it's like to go hungry. He spent eight months homeless as a teenager.

Bickel knows what it’s like to go hungry. Growing up in Ventnor, he was the second youngest of eight children in a household where food stamps put meals on the table. At 16, he was homeless for about eight months and was helped by an English teacher and his rowing coach.

Now the supervisor of social studies for Livingston Public Schools, Bickel, 43, serves as the district’s liaison to the township’s Food Day Committee — which has organized events throughout the month to celebrate healthful food and raise hunger awareness — and has become one of its biggest advocates. On Oct. 14, volunteers including Bickel and the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse filled a school bus full of donated goods for a series of "Stuff The Bus" events around Essex County.

Many times, hunger is a silent problem in suburbia. "Sue," a 48-year-old Livingston resident, is one example. As a working single mom of three, she struggles to make ends meet and receives food from St. Philomena’s pantry. She did not want to give her name.

The economy hit her family hard when her husband, whom she is separated from, had his salary cut in half. That, in turn, slashed the child support she receives.

"My kids are happy with a box of pasta," she said, but as a mother she wants to give them more. "Food is definitely an expense, and I’m trying to make sure they get chicken and all the stuff that they should be getting."

"The money they do have they’re using on taxes or their mortgage, and (residents) scrimp on food," said Sister Barbara Howard of St. Philomena’s, which has partnered with Bickel.

And it’s not easy to rely on food pantries in a well-to-do town like Livingston.

"We live in a town where people have two, three homes or vacation in Mexico every break or get a car on their 17th birthday," the single mom said.

To contact Bickel or support his effort to create an app, send an e-mail message to

Learn more about the Cloud Institute's New Jersey Learns Program: /new-jersey-learns

Profound Connections

By Chris Bickel

I graduated from the New Jersey Learns program in 2009.  I didn’t know it then, but my understanding of sustainability as it related to environmental literacy would drastically change.  I’ve moved away from compartmentalizing my ideas and actions, seeing instead their inter-connections and interdependence in a more fluid way. Now, I look for broader and higher level ideas and stewardship.  For example, early on I co-chaired two large environmental fairs and a compact fluorescent bulb distribution in the township of Livingston, NJ.  I thought each separate event was a success.  I “checked” it off my list and told myself, “You are doing your part, Chris.”  However, NJ Learns taught me to think “upstream” and go to the source of the problem.  I decided to bring my learning back to my position as a Supervisor of Social Studies for grades K-12 in Livingston NJ.

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