Fresh, organic, local produce. The first thing that comes to mind may be a crisp apple or large wand of Brussels sprouts; the second is their cost. While prices at some farmers markets are competitive with larger grocery chains, one generally expects, when browsing the farmers’ tables every Saturday or Sunday, to pay more for the produce on hand.
Except in Camden, N.J., where more and more residents are growing their own produce in community gardens. According to a 2009 research study funded by the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, “Camden residents have expanded community gardening at a rate that outpaces most, perhaps all U.S. cities.” The Camden City Garden Club, a non-profit instrumental in the support of the city’s community gardens, announced at the end of 2011 that the number of community gardens had tripled in the three years prior to 120 gardens in total.
The Penn study notes that produce from Camden’s community gardens is primarily donated, not sold, in a number of formal and informal settings. These range from gardeners sharing their yields with neighbors to food cupboards distributing fruits and vegetables to surrounding communities.
The actual selling of produce from these gardens happens only “occasionally,” explains Penn study co-author Domenic Vitiello, since sales from gardens are not permitted on public lots that are part of the Adopt-a-Lot program run by Camden’s Public Works Department.
Still, it is clear that the gardens exhibit and reinforce a culture of giving in their surrounding communities and would probably do so regardless of the limitations on selling. The authors note one of their most significant findings is that almost all community gardeners give produce to the hungry, as they “understand the challenges of food access and related health and economic problems of one of the poorest cities in America.”
Vitiello comments that the impact of these gardens reaches far beyond economics and is predominantly social. The gardens are systems of support in which sharing is not limited to produce, tools, tips and supplies. Among others, they are places for social interaction and preserving cultural heritage.
Mayor Redd visits the Esperanza Community Garden in North Camden. Credit: Michael Morgan
Activity in the gardens also raises awareness in their respective neighborhoods, providing “eyes on the street,” to borrow from Jane Jacobs. In addition to growing community cohesion, the gardens are sources of empowerment for residents. “There is a sense of empowerment in growing something, in taking care of it from something little to something big,” says Michael Morgan, a Camden resident.
This can come in different forms depending on the age group. This past summer, teenagers worked with the Student Conservation Association in several community gardens throughout the city and earned a paycheck while doing so, something not common among their peers. On the other end of the age spectrum, retirees find that gardening helps them deal with physical, social and economic issues that come with getting older, notes the Penn study.
The gardens can improve city blocks as well. Morgan comments that gardens like the Esperanza Community Garden in his neighborhood turn a vacant lot or collection of lots into a respected and celebrated portion of a block. The garden also served as the site where Mayor Dana Redd joined residents to hear out concerns about the neighborhood.
With only one grocery store serving a city of close to 80,000 residents, Camden is considered a “food desert.” Corner stores are one option for grocery shopping, yet typically do not carry the array of healthier options found in larger stores. Several mobile markets exist to help increase access to fresh food, including Greensgrow Farms Neighborhoods Markets: Camden and the Food Bank of South Jersey’s Hope Mobile.
Despite its limited access to grocery stores, community gardens are playing a pivotal role in improving food securities in Camden and cities like it. As Penn study notes: “…community gardens grow more food — and distribute that food more directly to hungry people — than any other form of urban agriculture in the United States today.”
Community garden at the St. Anthony of Padua School. Credit: St. Anthony of Padua School
Self-sustenance will be key for Camden in battling issues surrounding public health and food security, as grocery stores in the surrounding area continue to close. The Camden City Garden Club and Adopt-a-Lot program are cornerstones to the current success of the community gardens in the city. The Garden Club offers assistance to members in preparing lots for gardening and distributes seedlings and seeds at the Children’s Garden, its headquarters, among its many other activities. The Adopt-a-Lot program allows residents to obtain access to city-owned lots for gardening more readily than they would in other municipalities, such as Philadelphia.
The number of recent or expanding programs, organizations and initiatives in Camden addressing public health and food security issues demonstrates a clear recognition of their critical nature. The Camden Area Health Education Center, which currently manages four farmers markets throughout the city, underwent expansion from 2005-2007. In 2009, the Camden City Council, together with the Camden City Garden Club, initiated the Camden City Food Security Advisory Board. More recently in 2011, Campbell’s Soup announced their Healthy Camden Initiative, which aims to reduce childhood obesity and hunger by 50 percent by 2020.
For some, the aesthetic beauty of the gardens serves as a symbol for the direction of the city. William “Jud” Weiksnar of the St. Anthony of Padua School in Cramer Hill, home to Br. Jerry’s community garden, points out, “I think that for people walking or driving by the garden, seeing a beautiful garden where you wouldn’t expect to see one has a very beneficial effect that there is hope for Camden.”