Crisis in Camden: Children's Garden Matters to Collingswood, Too
According to an edict from the state of New Jersey, the facility has until March 31 to vacate a significant portion of its land. Borough residents are doing what they can to help.
Until the Ravitz family of Cherry Hill announced plans this week to open a new ShopRite supermarket in the city—and until it’s constructed—Camden City has had only one grocery store to serve its 80,000 residents since the 1980s.
Mark Smith, chef-owner of The Tortilla Press, says that's a far cry from conditions in his hometown of Norwalk, OH, where the residents only outnumber the supermarkets 15,000 to 5.
“[Camden is] classified as a food desert, and the public has to get their fresh produce from the little corner stores,” Smith said.
“There’s a necessity in Camden for any type of fresh food.”
For years, one institution that helped families meet those needs in the poorest and most dangerous city in the nation has been the Camden Children's Garden.
In the shadow of the New Jersey State Aquarium, the Garden is often thought of only as a destination for field trips. But the community gardening and urban agriculture programs it has facilitated have cleared off 26 acres of land at 120 locations in the city where people now grow fruits and vegetables.
For 19 years, its youth job training program has coached kids on the workings of argiculture. Year-round, the facility itself gives some 10,000 children from the city of Camden a safe place to visit—for free.
Of the staff that maintain the property, 80 percent are Camden City residents, including executive director Mike Devlin. In his mind, there's no better symbol for a city struggling to be reborn than a garden in bloom.
And there's no more ominous symbol for its resurrection than a March 31 deadline—Easter Sunday—by when the Garden also has been ordered to pull up stakes on 90 percent of its property.
$2.3 million in fresh produce
“When 2008 came and the economy melted down, the people of Camden were left between a rock and a hard place,” Devlin said.
In the city with the lowest median income in the country, residents can spend 40 percent of their annual budget on food, proving “that crisis hasn’t ended,” he said.
Community gardens supported by the Garden, are growing $2.3 million of fruits and vegetables annually, Devlin said.
“We were serving at least 12% of the population with its fresh fruit. It’s pretty substantial.”
And if the state had wanted the Garden gone, wanted it to register as a paying tenant, Devlin said, it had a long time to make those intentions known.
“We were there for 12 years plus before anybody asked us to sign a lease,” he said.
“Five governors came and left before the Christie people came there. If the state thought it owned the land and they thought we needed a lease, they certainly had a lot of opportunities.”
'We incorporated their harvest into the menu'
In Mark Smith's numerous catering gigs at the Garden—some of which have been hosted by prior governors, Devlin notes—menus were planned around the fruits and vegetables grown there.
“We incorporated their harvest into the menu,” Smith said. “What they would grow at the community gardens in the city, we were able to purchase it and supplement our stuff from the [Collingswood] Farmers Market.”
The impact of the Garden upon sustainability within the city is just as valuable as the food it grows, Smith said.
“The bigger thing for me as a chef is they run these programs about nutrition, and they teach people how to grow fresh food, and it’s all been based out of this little space of land,” he said.
“They have their offices, their greenhouses, their educational plots, a little kitchen where they can do educational demonstrations…for somebody to come in and say 'you have until March 31 to get out of here,' it’s crazy.”
In addition to being “a safe place for kids to hang out,” Smith said, the Garden employs Camden residents.
“They’re good people who are working and getting a paycheck, let alone the numerous people that you see at the gardens that are actually taking care of the land and the food,” Smith said.
“When you can actually take a drive through the city and take a look at the little pockets...where they’ve installed gardens," he said, "you see that they’re able to produce fresh food—and not only to reward the people that are doing it, but actually distributing it to the neighbors in the area.”
'I've made so many friends there'
Collingswood native Lillian Ward, who is attending school at Boston University, has been either a volunteer or staffer at the Garden for about 10 years.
"It has become my home almost as certainly as Collingswood is," Ward told Patch in an e-mail. "The people I worked with in my years at the Garden are among the best I've ever known."
Ward, who had her post-CHS graduation party at the Garden in 2008, said that another benefit the facility also provides are necessary vocational opportunities for individuals with various disabilites.
The Garden offers "skills they can use for the rest of their lives as well as long-term work opportunities that will only end if the Garden closes," she wrote, "leaving an already vulnerable population in even more dire straits.
"I don't think I can overstate how much I love the Children's Garden and how desperately I hope it stays open," Ward wrote.
"We've weathered many storms over the years, and I really hope that this isn't the one that sinks us."
The Camden Children's Garden is hosting a Pay What You Wish day at its facility Saturday, March 23, from 1 to 4 p.m., with proceeds to benefit the Camden Children's Garden Club, its overseers.
The Tortilla Press is also kicking in 25 percent of all checks from both of its locations on April 1 to benefit the club.
More updates are available on the Facebook group, "Save the Camden Children's Garden."