Vegetable gardens coming to downtown Camden

A year after a group of Camden students won a grant to install flower beds and planters on Cooper Street, a second grant is coming that will help them start vegetable gardens.

The project, developed by students from LEAP Academy University Charter School, will receive $50,000 from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, LEAP officials announced Tuesday. Students can start planting vegetables this spring in the planters, which currently hold seasonal flowers.

"There's a stereotype that Camden is ugly and nobody likes it," said Karina Velez, a LEAP Academy senior, who has been part of the project from the start. "This is just another part of Camden that's going to be more beautiful. It's a special project that everybody can be a part of. You can plant when you're young, and you can plant when you're old."

The project sought to address the dearth of fresh food in Camden, which in recent years was classified as a food desert because of a shortage of full-service grocery stores. The LEAP students teamed up with students from Rutgers-Camden and several professors, and entered the project in a student competition organized by the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers-Newark. The proposal won, earning $5,000 from Rutgers last year.

Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, founder and chairwoman of LEAP, said the urban farming project was a sign of changing times in downtown Camden. Since the flower beds were installed last year around LEAP's downtown campus, nobody has disturbed them.

"It used to be, at one time, Cooper Street did not look this way," she said. "We want to make sure our children have the best experience possible."

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876@AESteele

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