From the Skylands to the seashore, 22 New Jersey municipalities spanning 14 counties have been selected for going above and beyond to address community health needs this past year.
They range from one of the state’s tiniest boroughs to its second and third-largest cities.
Eight were named “2020 Healthy Towns,” the top honor. They were: Asbury Park, Evesham Township, Montclair, Paterson, Plainfield, Scotch Plains, Wildwood Crest, and Woodbridge.
Nine were designated as “2020 Healthy Towns to Watch”: Bay Head, Denville, Franklin Lakes, Freehold Borough, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Jersey City, Norwood, and Vernon.
Five were named “2020 Healthy Towns Up-and-Coming”: Highlands, Lawrence Township, Morristown, Princeton, and Willingboro.
The Mayors Wellness Campaign made the selections from over 400 participating communities in its “Healthy Towns” initiative. The New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute launched the initiative in 2006 in partnership with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
Municipalities taking part in the initiative complete a Healthy Town application each year outlining research they’ve done to identify their public health needs and actions taken to address those needs. This year’s campaign gave special emphasis to addressing food insecurity, helping residents stay physically and mentally active, and other actions aimed at mitigating the effects of COVID-19 and government’s response to it.
The honorees are listed below in alphabetical order.
1. ASBURY PARK — Healthy Town
Like many shore towns, this seaside city famous for its sandy beaches and boardwalk amusements took an economic hit from the pandemic but overcame these barriers to earn top honors in this year’s “Healthy Town” contest.
The city, in addition to supporting local food pantries, worked with county health officials to provide COVID-19 testing for city and county residents. It also set up a Ryde4Life program offering free on-demand transportation through Lyft and Uber to senior citizens, people with disabilities and others needing a ride to doctor appointments and food shopping.
“The designation of the City of Asbury Park as a Healthy Town represents a culmination of years of hard work by our Mayors Wellness Committee members, community organizations, health care partners and residents to promote a culture of health and active lifestyles for all of Asbury Park,” said Mayor John Moor.
2. BAY HEAD —Healthy Town to Watch
This shore town, one of the state’s smallest communities by population, houses one of the state’s largest historic districts. Taking in more than half the town’s buildings, much of the district was spared from the worst of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy by a stone rubble seawall built in 1882.
Like its larger neighbors, the tiny borough wasn’t spared from the pandemic but still came up big for its 1,000 residents by shifting to a virtual platform on short notice and creating a health and wellness website offering up-to-date resources and information. Doing so enabled it to continue vital health and wellness programming while adjusting in-person events to stay compliant with state regulations.
“What makes me so very proud is that we have done all of our activities with volunteers,” said Mayor Bill Curtis. “Our volunteers live in Bay Head, take pride in Bay Head, have a passion for wellness and are willing to try new programs that involve all residents and visitors.”
3. DENVILLE — Healthy Town to Watch
Nicknamed the “Hub of Morris County” for its central location and proximity to major highways and rail transportation, this charming bedroom community was formerly used by Lenape Native Americans to traverse a trail roughly paralleling modern-day Route 10.
During the pandemic, Denville used its outdoor spaces and virtual platforms to offer musical theater and art for its youth and senior yoga for older adults, innovations that helped it make the “Healthy Towns to Watch” list for the second year in a row.
A community garden also encouraged healthy eating and helped keep people’s spirits up.
“Thanks to our recreation director and committee, despite the limitations caused by COVID-19, Denville was able to remain active and I am delighted that Denville has been named a Healthy Town to Watch,” said Mayor Tom Andes.
4. EVESHAM TOWNSHIP — Healthy Town
The U.S. Army operated a missile defense facility in this once-rural township to shield the Philadelphia area from attack during the Cold War. Yet despite its significance to the region at the time, road signs and even the local post office still refer to this Philadelphia suburb as Marlton, a historic village within the township.
During last year’s pandemic, Evesham Township partnered with health care providers to offer programs on coping with stress. It also formed a volunteer Human Rights Council to “bolster the increasing number of Americans across the nation joining the fight against inequality and injustice.”
“One of my top priorities as mayor is to provide residents of all abilities the opportunity to maintain great physical and mental health through use of our outstanding facilities and programs,” said Mayor Jackie Veasy. “I’m especially proud we earned the Healthy Town distinction for our work during 2020.”
5.FRANKLIN LAKES — Healthy Town to Watch
This scenic borough and home to Becton Dickinson, a Fortune 500 company, launched an “At Home Activities and Challenges” program in partnership with the local library to keep students actively engaged despite the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders.
The program grew and ended up pulling in businesses, employees, families, athletes and senior citizens, all of whom enjoyed partaking in the contests and games.
“Franklin Lakes is once again honored to be named a Healthy Town to Watch by Quality Institute, especially during a year when the unprecedented pandemic disrupted everyday norms and programming,” Mayor Frank Bivona said.
6. FREEHOLD BOROUGH — Healthy Town to Watch
Site of the 1778 Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, one of the largest battles of the Revolutionary War, the present-day county seat of Monmouth County took on another battle last year by confronting the food insecurity that afflicted many residents in the pandemic’s early stages.
Within a week, “Freehold Food Safety Net” raised $27,000 and provided 3,200 meals to students and families last spring at a time when no school-based meals were available.
Local restaurants provided additional meals, which volunteers helped deliver to homebound residents and seniors. The program also delivered thousands of fresh produce boxes and set up a 10-week voucher program through the local Farmers Market, which provided over 700 people with vouchers totaling nearly $37,000.
“We’re justifiably proud of our little town where we celebrate our diversity, respect and help each other, and work together to create a safe, healthy and progressive community where our children, our seniors, and our families can thrive and be happy,” Mayor Kevin Kane said.
7. HIGHLANDS — Healthy Town Up-and-Coming
Named for its high bluff overlooking Sandy Hook and the Atlantic Ocean, residents of this onetime summer playground for New York socialites showed their pluck by working hard to overcome losses suffered as a result of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
Shortly before the pandemic began, the borough began collecting data from residents to gauge their health needs. Top concerns included mental health, substance addiction, and other needs specific to older individuals and seniors. The borough is continuing to use the information to target the mental, nutritional and physical health needs of its residents.
“We only had a few events completed when the pandemic shutdown occurred,” said Mayor Carolyn Broullon. “We quickly shifted to all outdoor and socially distant activities. Being able to achieve this status for the first time, during the pandemic, is a testament to our commitment to the health and well-being of our residents and our community.”
8. HILLSBOROUGH — Healthy Town to Watch
During the Second World War, this once-rural township housed a facility for Italian and German POWs along with a storage depot for war materials. It also housed the longtime estate of tobacco and energy tycoon James “Buck” Duke and his daughter Doris Duke, where it remains today as a preserved natural area.
During the pandemic, the township used its social media and virtual platforms to advertise and hold events including fitness classes, senior walks, and a drive-through health fair. The township also continued employee wellness programs to keep its staff active and healthy.
“We are honored to be recognized as a Healthy Town to Watch,” said Mayor Shawn Lipani. “Living an active and healthy lifestyle is important and we are looking forward to more initiatives through the program for 2021.”
9. JEFFERSON — Healthy Town to Watch
As the northernmost municipality in Morris County, scenic Jefferson is home to a number of lakes, parks and trails. It was named for Thomas Jefferson, who was president at the time of the township’s creation in 1804.
In addition to using social media to keep its residents updated about COVID-19, the township partnered with community organizations to offer summer outdoor yoga classes and educational programs on advance care planning, mental health and suicide prevention.
“We are ecstatic to influence our residents to make positive and healthy behavior changes through a variety of programs offered with the Mayors Wellness Campaign,” said Mayor Eric Wilsusen.
10. JERSEY CITY — Healthy Town to Watch
As the state’s second largest city, Jersey City is home to one of the country’s largest financial districts outside New York City, accounting for its nickname as “Wall Street West.” But its history goes back much farther.
Prior to the Civil War, thousands of enslaved people made their way to freedom along four routes of the Underground Railroad that ran through here.
Today Jersey City is continuing to tackle a wide range of health concerns for its diverse population. During the pandemic, the city collected and distributed 24,000 cloth masks and 250,000 face shields. The “Sewing Angels,” a group of volunteer high school students, also updated 2,500 N95 masks for distribution to city health providers.
“Jersey City is proud to be a leader in implementing innovative solutions and policies to help urban areas like ours to overcome the systematic issues that have plagued underserved communities for far too long,” said Mayor Steven Fulop. “This pandemic has disproportionately affected the more economically challenged areas and exacerbated societal issues, which is why we are committed to expanding our efforts.”
11. LAWRENCE TOWNSHIP — Healthy Town Up-and-Coming
Founded by Quaker settlers in 1697, the township was renamed in 1816 for Captain James Lawrence, a New Jersey-born naval hero of the War of 1812 whose dying command was “Don’t give up the ship!”
The township was recognized more recently for keeping residents engaged, outdoors and active during the pandemic through such offerings as “Art in the Park” classes, an annual fishing derby, and hula hoop classes for seniors. A Backyard Campout Night, complete with giveaways of s’mores, flashlights and other supplies, encouraged families to pitch a tent in the yard and enjoy the outdoors.
“Helping residents to a more active and healthier lifestyle and improving the overall wellness of our community takes commitment and creativity,” said Mayor James Kownacki. “During a pandemic, those challenges are magnified ten times over. I offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to our recreation and health departments for their hard work in our residents’ service.”
12. MONTCLAIR — Healthy Town
Home to Montclair State University and its on-campus museum honoring the late Yogi Berra, one of its most famous residents, Montclair received “Healthy Town” honors for the third year in a row.
While continuing its previously launched health and wellness programs, the township expanded remote access to these programs for older adults. It also offered food distribution to residents over 60 so they could stay safely in their homes. Through a Community Farms Coalition, the township took additional steps to keep residents active while addressing food insecurity.
“Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle is always important, but now especially,” said Mayor Sean Spiller. “There have been challenges along the way, but the township with the help of our community partners has been able to offer a variety of activities for people of all ages, both in the physical and virtual spheres. The well-being of our residents is of critical importance and we are proud to have met the challenges to be once again honored.”
13. MORRISTOWN — Healthy Town Up-and-Coming
During George Washington’s winter encampment here in the Revolutionary War, local churches in Morristown did double duty as smallpox inoculation centers.
Last year Morristown once again helped stem a pandemic by pivoting quickly to provide daily video updates related to COVID-19. In addition to encouraging residents to wear masks and be conscious of their health choices, Morristown addressed the rise in food insecurity by collecting over 6,000 pounds of food through community food drives.
“I am incredibly proud of this accomplishment because it demonstrates to all of us here in Morristown what makes our town great,” said Mayor Timothy Dougherty.
“Our thriving downtown includes every cuisine you can think of with scores of healthy cafes, fitness studios, and activities. We’re home to beautiful parks and historical landmarks worth venturing through, and clubs and events that promote a healthy lifestyle for all residents. Living in Morristown breeds a healthy lifestyle, and in turn, that lifestyle breeds a healthy Morristown.”
14. NORWOOD — Healthy Town to Watch
Taking its name from the “North Woods” of Bergen County, the area known as Norwood went through several border changes starting in the 1700s before finally establishing itself as an independent borough in 1905.
A first-time honoree of the Mayors Wellness Campaign, the borough’s achievements last year included hosting its first annual Norwood Day, a free event that encouraged residents to eat healthy foods while spending time safely in nature and the outdoors. The event included health-focused food trucks, yoga instruction, physical therapists and other holistically oriented health professionals. Residents had access to these services while remaining socially distanced.
“Our Healthy Norwood Initiative will continue to bring programs and activities to our residents that will be beneficial in all facets of well-being,” said Mayor James P. Barsa.
“We will use all of our resources, which include our parks, hiking trails, community center, and local businesses that focus on wellness to bring diverse, fun, and educational events to the most important part of Norwood, the people who live here.”
15. PATERSON — Healthy Town
Once known as “Silk City” for its role as a leading producer of silk and textiles, Paterson is the state’s third largest city and takes its name from William Paterson, a signer of the Constitution and New Jersey’s second governor.
It was Alexander Hamilton, however, who foresaw the city’s early growth as a manufacturing center and cradle of the Industrial Revolution and the importance of the Great Falls of the Passaic River as a catalyst to this growth.
In January 2020, Mayor Andre Sayegh kicked off the “Mayor’s Walk to the Great Falls,” an event that saw more than 200 residents and schoolchildren accompany him on a group walk from City Hall to Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. The event was broadcast on Facebook Live so those unable to participate could still witness it. The mayor’s wife, Farhanna Sayegh, is also a champion of the Healthy Towns program and has held women’s workouts in her backyard.
“Our focus has been on the mental and physical health of Patersonians and how the Mayors Wellness Campaign could help conquer COVID-19,” the mayor said. “We are honored that our efforts have been recognized.”
16. PLAINFIELD — Healthy Town
When it comes to healthy living, Plainfield may have been ahead of its time.
Its historic nickname as “The Queen City,” in fact, came about in response to its climate and air quality that some perceived as beneficial to those with respiratory conditions. In 1886, a local newspaper publisher began promoting Plainfield as the “Colorado of the East.” Taking its cues from Denver, known as the “Queen City of the Plains,” Plainfield began calling itself simply “The Queen City.”
Having received the Healthy Town designation for the third year in a row, Plainfield and its officials are continuing updates on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The city also has continued to offer nutritional counseling to city employees along with blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, and lead screenings for residents.
The Mayors Wellness Committee cited the city for recognizing the role these public health determinants can play in warding off the worst effects of the pandemic.
17. PRINCETON — Healthy Town Up-and-Coming
Home to the world-renowned Ivy League university that bears its name, Princeton redoubled its public health efforts last year with contact tracing, flu vaccine clinics, and an emergency task force that continues to monitor the response to COVID-19.
Princeton’s health department also has built upon its partnerships with local nonprofits, schools, the business community and others to enhance public health education and mitigate virus transmission.
“Through engaging with innovative, virtual health communication tools, as well as utilizing vital community partnerships, our health department has been able to reach Princeton residents in an equitable, efficient manner — an achievement that we are truly proud of and will continue to work toward improving,” said Mayor Mark Freda.
18. SCOTCH PLAINS — Healthy Town
For over 40 years, Scotch Plains hosted the nation’s first Black-owned golf and country club, Shady Rest Country Club. The club was home to John Shippen, the first Black professional golfer. The club also played host to some of the era’s most prominent musicians including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and others.
In 1964, the township of Scotch Plains acquired the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, opening it to the public and renaming it Scotch Hills Country Club. While the name might have changed, the old Shady Rest clubhouse remains at what’s now a municipal-owned golf course.
More recently, Scotch Plains earned the distinction of receiving its third Healthy Town award in as many years. Through partnerships with local schools, parks, businesses, fitness centers and the Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA, the township has offered programs such as Sunrise Yoga Saturdays. It also has continued to sponsor nutrition challenges, community 5K races, and the Scotch Plains Farmers Market.
Mayor Josh Losardo credited his predecessor, former Mayor Al Smith, with setting forth a number of these initiatives, which the township continues to build on with support from the administration and council.
“We are committed to promoting healthy behaviors, with a strong focus on enhancing our public parks and expanding recreational opportunities, as well as hosting town-wide events that encourage interaction and further build our community,” Losardo said.
19.VERNON — Healthy Town to Watch
Home to ski slopes, a waterpark, the Appalachian Trail, and another trail that locals call the “Stairway to Heaven,” Vernon was previously selected by online travel company Expedia as the state’s best destination for nature lovers.
Prior to the pandemic, the township also began offering guided hikes and sponsoring the annual “Trails of Vernon Challenge,” a self-paced activity aimed at encouraging hikers from beginners to advanced to discover the township’s many scenic trails.
Some of these activities took a back seat during the pandemic as the township turned its focus to addressing food insecurity through curbside to-go meals at its Senior Center nutrition site, providing vulnerable populations access to healthy food. A safe, accessible, covered outdoor seating area also was offered, providing much-needed socialization at a time when such opportunities were few and far between for some people. Mountain Creek Resort, which has partnered with the township on various recreation initiatives in the past, also stepped up by holding a weekly drive-up food pantry.
As the pandemic winds down, the township is looking to better days ahead with plans for new recreational amenities including a bicycle pump track and added trails.
“This honor would not have been possible without the host of volunteers who serve our town on municipal committees such as the Board of Recreation, the Beautification Committee, the Greenway Action Advisory Committee, the Economic Development Advisory Committee, the Environmental Commission, and the Senior Citizen Committee,” said Mayor Howard Burrell.
“To make our town an even better and healthier place to live, we are in the early stages of planning a beautiful new town center walking and biking trail — all part of our efforts to move Vernon forward.”
20. WILDWOOD CREST — Healthy Town
Wildwood Crest provided a backdrop for many a family vacation for those who came of age in the latter 20th century, so much so that some of its motels are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Like other shore towns, Wildwood Crest wasn’t immune to the economic hit wrought by the pandemic but still managed to earn its first Healthy Town recognition.
With a focus on stress reduction and building healthy bodies and minds, the borough offered livestream exercise classes and monthly wellness challenges through its Facebook page related to diet and nutrition, stress relief, exercise, hygiene, self-care and education. Participants earned points for engaging in the various initiatives, which led to constructive online discussions.
“Since starting our program in 2019, our Mayors Wellness Campaign has received overwhelming participation and support from our residents, municipal staff, vacationers, and partners,” said Mayor Don Cabrera. “I extend a heartfelt thank you to our wellness committee and recreation staff for helping to carry out the mission of wellness throughout our community, especially during a pandemic. We are just getting started.”
21. WILLINGBORO — Healthy Town Up-and-Coming
In the late 1950s, Willingboro underwent a massive housing boom that had it slated to become the third Levittown following similar projects by the namesake developer on New York’s Long Island and in Pennsylvania. However, confusion with the nearby town of Levittown, Pa., prompted a name change back to the original Willingboro in 1963.
Overshadowing all this growth was the stain of racial discrimination: A landmark New Jersey Supreme Court case by a Black man, a U.S. Army officer who had faced discrimination in his attempt to purchase a home in Willingboro, led to the implementation of wide-scale integration efforts here starting around 1960.
Sixty years later, the township has much to be proud of after being recognized recently as an up-and-comer in the “Healthy Towns” program. In addition to offering healthy food and nutrition information to its residents, the township has created a community garden that will further enable them to grow healthy food sources.
“In 2020, we revisited how we respond to the whole person and increased our food drives and strengthened partnerships with agencies to provide COVID-19 testing, flu shots, mental health services and more,” said Mayor Tiffani Worthy.
“The racially motivated incidents that transpired in cities across the country required us to also take further steps to strengthen the relationship between residents and police officers, which generated a series of citizen forums about 21st-century policing hosted by Willingboro Police Department. We look forward to 2021 being another healthy year in Willingboro for all of our residents.”
22. WOODBRIDGE — Healthy Town
As the oldest original township in New Jersey, Woodbridge made history again in 1982 when it became the first community in the United States to ban public use of Sony Walkman cassette players while crossing the street, riding a bike or driving a car.
Intended as a safety measure, the law was a forerunner to later laws dealing with cell phone use while driving.
When the pandemic took hold last year, Woodbridge quickly shifted to a virtual platform, where it provided programs focused on mental and physical health. It then took on food insecurity with food collections that enabled it to provide food to those most in need.
“2020 was a stressful year for many, so our Mayors Wellness Team helped put an emphasis on physical and mental wellness by continuing to offer a variety of programming to our community while following all safety protocols,” said Mayor John McCormac.
“We are honored to be designated one of New Jersey’s Healthy Towns.”