Community Gardens Boom in New Jersey

Residents of Camden have experienced harvesting their own produce thanks to the proliferation of community gardens in the area.

by Cari Jorgensen
PHOTO: Susy Morris/Flickr

In the summer of 2009, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Public Health Initiatives funded a research study of community gardens in Camden, N.J., measuring the amount of food produced and the ways in which the produce is distributed to people in the community.

Over the past two years, Camden residents have expanded community gardening at a rate that outpaces most, perhaps all, U.S. cities, according to the Harvest Report. By visiting a varied sampling of 44 gardens, interviewing 100 gardeners and weighing the crops the gardens produced, the University of Pennsylvania researchers estimated that crops harvested in these Camden gardens during the summer of 2009 yielded nearly 139,000 servings of fresh vegetables for these gardeners.

“Undoubtedly, food production in Camden gardens is expanding the options, availability and interest in fresh, healthy, local vegetables” in this urban community, the study concluded. “Children and new adult gardeners … are learning to grow their own [vegetables] and appreciate how carrots taste when pulled straight from the ground.”

The research aims to help clarify the relationship between community gardening and community food security in Camden. This report is part of a three-city, multi-year study that also included Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J., to measure vegetable production and trace food distribution and other impacts of community gardens and urban farms.

The research for “Harvest Report: Summer 2009” was conducted in partnership with the Camden City Garden Club, Inc. and its subsidiary, the Camden Children’s Garden, which coordinate Camden’s Community Gardening Program and maintain more than 80 food-producing gardens. In 2010 alone, 15 new gardens (four of which measure 1/3 to 1/2 acre) have been created to help meet the food needs of a community that has been deemed a “food desert.” Several of the new plots are substantially larger than most of the 31 gardens created in 2009.

In the Harvest Report, community gardens in Camden help illustrate how people living in a small, very poor city employ gardening in diverse ways to address issues of hunger, health, youth, aging, and other social, ecological and economic challenges. In Camden, community gardening’s emphasis on food production is a viable strategy to address food security.

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Below are some of the study’s key findings:

  • Camden consistently ranks among the poorest and most violent cities in the United States, a stark example of urban decline, social and political economic crisis, and consequently, food insecurity. Both because of this and despite this, it’s also a leading center of community gardening.
  • Many gardeners and Garden Club leaders explain community-garden growth in terms of Camden residents’ sensitivity to recent upswings in food prices and to longer-term issues of public health and hunger.
  • For most Camden gardeners, community gardening is one strategy among many to improve health and food access for themselves, their families and their neighbors.
  • The City Public Works Department’s Adopt-a-Lot program and the Camden City Garden Club are two of the relatively few public and citywide nonprofit organizations that people seem to agree work well and consistently improve people’s quality of life.
  • Camden has roughly 12,000 abandoned lots, about 4,000 of which are city-owned, according to Deborah Hirsch’s “Caring residents transform vacant lots into urban oases,” Courier Post (Oct. 5, 2008).
  • Almost 95 percent of Camden’s community gardens are located in census tracts where the average household lives 200 percent below the federal poverty line.

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