Camden's surge in community gardening

Pedro Rodriguez works a garden on Beckett Street. Below, vegetables from a garden run by St. Anthony of Padua Church. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

The Camden story is all too familiar. More often than not, it's about poverty, corruption, and violence.

But here's a new, uplifting chapter for that distressing book: Community gardens have more than doubled in Camden - to 80-plus - over the last two years, making this 10-square-mile city a leader in food production locally and, possibly, beyond.

The city's surprising green surge also provides residents with much-needed fresh food, which itself is a tool for fighting one of Camden's most intractable health problems - child obesity.

"By all accounts, nothing works in Camden, but this really seems to work for the people there," says Domenic Vitiello, assistant professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied community gardens and their impact in Philadelphia, Trenton, and, most recently, Camden.

"Over the last two years," he says, "Camden residents have expanded community gardening at a rate that outpaces most, perhaps all, U.S. cities."

The reasons aren't complicated; on the drawing board, these things rarely are. All it takes are committed people, the right programs, and money.

Still, even those who have made it happen seem a little surprised at Camden's success at community gardening. "It's pretty amazing," says the Rev. Earnell Steed Jr., pastor of the Genesis New Beginning in Christ Church on Liberty Street.

In 2008, he and his parishioners planted a robust vegetable garden next to the church, on seven vacant lots covering more than an acre and owned by the city. (Speaking of chapters in the book of Camden, the site used to have a paper factory on it.)

"Before we put in the garden, the block looked like a war zone," says Steed, who worked as a heavy-equipment operator before joining the ministry.

Although he is new to gardening, Steed now sees the spiritual value of growing food as well as its health, social, and financial benefits. "It falls right in line with our mission," he says, "which centers on evangelism, education, and economic empowerment."

It also feeds neighbors, parishioners, children at a nearby day-care center, and local firefighters.

The church got permission to use the old factory site free through Camden's Adopt-a-Lot program, which is one reason community gardens are growing so fast here. In Philadelphia, the permission process can be daunting; in Camden, it takes a mere six weeks.

Camden has plenty of abandoned property - 12,000 lots, of which about 4,000 are city-owned. And, for the foreseeable future, most aren't in gentrifying neighborhoods, where development pressures can be intense.

That was the case in Philadelphia between 1996 and 2008, according to Vitiello, who cites rising property values and real estate development, among other factors, as the reason the number of community food gardens dropped precipitously - from 501 to 226. He suggests that given the economy and the growing interest in fresh food, those numbers have been working their way back up.

The economy and a desire for fresh food figure into Camden's garden growth, too. So does the support of three dozen religious institutions and leaders like Steed.

"Churches are one of the few institutions left in Camden with strong relationships with the community," Vitiello says. "They really reach people, the kids are involved, and the ministers have moral authority, too."

Nowhere is this dynamic more in evidence than at St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in the Cramer Hill section.

Across River Road from the church and parochial school is a 3/4-acre lot that, from the mid-1990s to 2002, held trailers that served as police substations. Once the substations closed, the drug dealers moved in.

In 2008, with the trailers gone and the dealers driven out, the church adopted the lot from the city and turned it into a community garden. Today, 35 families, many Spanish-speaking, tend plots that burst with seasonal abundance.

By Vitiello's measurement, the gardeners' inaugural harvest in 2009 consisted of 2,200 pounds of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, not to mention an overflow of corn, greens, squash, melons, and herbs.

He estimates that the total from this garden alone represented 6,100 servings of vegetables, enough to provide three servings a day for three months for 22 people.

"Community gardens, and backyard gardens for that matter, really matter," says Vitiello, who has a large garden behind his Mount Airy home.

With support from the Franciscan friars at St. Anthony's, the families grow for themselves, for friends and neighbors, and for residents of Francis House, the church's home for people with HIV. On Sundays, parishioners help themselves from a basket of vegetables outside the church.

Luis and Martha Checo were among the first to sign up for the garden, with a nudge from their son, Alex.

In spring 2008, Alex, then 9, came home from a St. Anthony's school field trip to the Camden Children's Garden with a tomato seedling that proved so prolific, the family decided to give the new community garden a go the following year.

Now 10 and a fifth grader, Alex is quite the urban farmer. He grows greens, corn, tomatoes, squash, basil, mint, and rosemary at St. Anthony's and at home, while serving as a pint-size tutor for his Mexican-born, erstwhile nongardening mother.

Martha Checo was a quick study. These days, she makes a nutritious lasagna with large zucchini slices and "awesome scrambled eggs" for her Dominican husband, a custodian at St. Anthony's, using tomatoes, spinach, and onions from the garden.

"You use cilantro, too," prompts Alex, "and basil, with a hint of garlic."

"Oh, my God!" his mother exclaims. "You're my teacher!"

Connecting family, church, and healthful eating was the goal of a two-year, $225,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton to the Camden City Garden Club in 2008. The mission: to work with faith-based organizations in Camden to fight childhood obesity through community gardening and nutrition programs.

For 25 years, the garden club - comprising 27 churches, 34 community groups, and 90 families - has promoted community gardening in the city. Since 1993, it has operated the Camden Children's Garden on the waterfront.

Marjorie Paloma, program officer for the foundation, says churches and faith-based groups were targeted because "they're the eyes and ears on the ground, working with the community every day . . . providing service, taking action, and advancing policy."

Of particular concern is childhood obesity. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted that, at 18.1 percent, New Jersey had the nation's highest incidence of obesity among lower-income children 2 to 5 years old. According to Vitiello's report, an estimated 60 percent of all of Camden's children are obese.

Meanwhile, Camden has only one full-service supermarket - in the Fairview section, on the southeastern edge of the city - for 80,000 residents, roughly one-eighth the national average. Low-income neighborhoods are often called "food deserts" for the scarcity of both supermarkets and farmers' markets.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant may have been the catalyst for Camden's boost in community gardens, but all involved emphasize that the building blocks were there - the churches, the vacant land, Adopt-a-Lot, and the Camden City Garden Club, which provides local gardeners with seeds, tools, fencing, compost, wood chips, and seedlings.

The William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia has long supported the club's efforts. Program officer Andrew W. Johnson says the goal is to create a sustainable network of community gardens, rather than one here, one there.

"We're really interested in game-changing strategies for dealing with access to fresh food," he says.

Sounds like Mike Devlin talking.

He and his wife, Valerie Frick, founders of the Camden Children's Garden, the garden club, and other programs, have been trying to change the game for decades now.

Devlin says that despite the typical Camden narrative, his experience with old and new gardeners shows that Camden can be "a place to be admired" and that it's more than able to "inspire others."

Every one of the 100 gardeners interviewed for Vitiello's study "grew a surplus of fruits and vegetables and then gave this surplus away to people who were in need," says Devlin, who notes that researchers "found a level of generosity in Camden that was admirable, in the most dangerous city in America."


Contact staff writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or