Meet “desperate” Camden N.J., the fastest growing community garden city in the country

And it’s precisely because conditions on the ground are so desperate that this community gardening idea has taken root. 130 new community gardens since 2010. And with 12,000 abandoned lots, there’s plenty of room for growth.

I ask, why wait until conditions are desperate when we can grow food, connect with others, and have a wonderful time in the process NOW?

A long, meaty article, with lots of links.

Meet the Tenacious Gardeners Putting Down Roots in “America’s Most Desperate Town”

They’re not always optimistic about the future of Camden, N.J. But they’re committed to it anyway, and they’ve created one of the nation’s fastest growing networks of urban farms.

June 9, 2014

by Kristin Moe


Nohemi Soria and Pedro Rodriguez harvest collard greens in Camden, N.J. Photo by Kristin Moe.

Nohemi Soria and Pedro Rodriguez harvest collard greens in Camden, N.J. Photo by Kristin Moe.


These are Pedro Rodriguez’s chickens, in alphabetical order: Bella, Blanche, Dominique, Flo, Flossie, Lucy, Pauline, Una, and Victoria. Their coop occupies one corner of a vacant-lot-turned-garden in Camden, New Jersey. It’s an oasis of abundance and order in a city of abandoned buildings, street trash, and drug deals that few attempt to hide.

Since 2010, the number of community gardens has more than doubled to roughly 130.
Rodriguez, 50, grew up down the street. Near the chickens, he has planted neat raised beds of corn, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, asparagus, eggplant, onion, 20 varieties of hot peppers, and broccoli. Fruit trees (cherry, apple, peach, and pear) line the perimeter of the lot, as well as two beehives. He’s considering getting a goat.

To say that Camden has a bad reputation would be an understatement. Indeed, Camden, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has about the worst of any city in America. It’s been ranked at various times as both the poorest and the most dangerous. In 2012, it ranked as the number-one most dangerous city in the country.

Not surprisingly, Camden also gets a ton of bad press. In 2010 The Nation called it a “City of Ruins” where “those discarded as human refuse are dumped.” Last year, Rolling Stone ran a devastating article by Matt Taibbi under the headline “Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch from America’s Most Desperate Town,” calling it “a city run by armed teenagers,” “an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence.”

It’s also one of the worst urban food deserts in the country. In September of 2013, the last centrally located grocery store closed its doors, leaving the city to feed itself on Crown Chicken and junk from the corner bodegas. One supermarket remains, at the very edge of Camden’s city limits—but most residents would have to cross a river and travel along a major highway to get there—a difficulty in a city where many can’t afford a car. Like in many other low-income areas, obesity is an epidemic.

Most kids in Camden talk about leaving—and many of them do. The population peaked in 1950 and has since declined by nearly 40 percent to about 77,000. Anywhere between 3,000 and 9,000 houses have been abandoned, although no one knows for sure. For residents who want a better life, getting out is the most obvious thing to do.

As so many flee the violence and crime, it may seem strange that Rodriguez is literally putting down roots. In fact, it’s precisely because of the city’s problems that its urban farms have grown so much in recent years. A study by the University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Health Initiatives said in 2010 that Camden’s gardens may be the fastest growing in the country. Since then, the number of community gardens has more than doubled to roughly 130, according to a list kept by local gardeners.

The Penn study found that these gardens—belonging to churches, neighborhood organizations, and everyday backyard growers—produced the equivalent of $2.3 million in food in 2013 and, because most growers share their surplus zucchini with their neighbors, those vegetables have helped feed roughly 15 percent of Camden’s population.

The city needs fresh food, and residents are doing what it takes to grow it. It’s part of the untold story of Camden: a story in which the residents of this blighted city are the protagonists, quietly working to make Camden a place where, one day, you might want to live.



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