Growing a Healthier City, One Garden at a Time

    • December 28, 2009

Increasing access to healthy foods is a key component of the Foundation’s strategy to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. And nowhere is the need to increase access to healthy food more pressing than in Camden, N.J., a city with one full-service supermarket for 80,000 residents. (The national average is closer to one supermarket for 10,000 residents.) Recognizing this need, and the potential that community gardens have to produce food and bring together neighbors, the Camden City Gardening Club Inc. joined forces with the Woodland Community Development Corporation and local faith communities to expand an existing program to turn vacant lots into community gardens.

Over the past year, Camden City Gardening Club Inc. has worked with residents to create 31 gardens, 25 of which are part of the partnership with Camden’s faith communities. Children not only learn how to grow and prepare healthy foods, but they also learn which nutrients are in those foods. What’s more, the act of gardening is starting conversations. In Camden, where crime has often made people afraid to spend a lot of time outside of their homes, neighbors are bonding over their gardens. They’re not just growing food, they’re growing community.

”People from a variety of faiths have joined forces to address childhood obesity,” said Rev. Floyd White, one of the project’s faith leaders and executive director of the Woodland Community Development Corporation. “Gardening has a unique ability to bring people together.”

And this sense of community has stimulated more change. Residents recognize that lack of access to healthy, affordable food in Camden is a major barrier to good health. So they’ve organized to create the Camden Food Security Advisory Council. The council is working to increase the availability of healthy foods in Camden. Mike Devlin, the executive director of Camden City Gardening Club Inc., sits on the council, as does Luis Checo, the father of one of Camden’s most avid young gardeners. Both men see community gardening as a way to promote broader issues of food access and get people involved.

“In Camden, where access to healthy food is so limited, the recent increase in community gardens has sparked a greater interest in healthy, fresh food and stimulated a movement to continue building gardens and creating policies that can further increase access to healthy food for all residents,” said Mike Devlin. “The new Camden Food Security Advisory Council is an additional way we are using this energy to make even bigger changes.”

The community gardens project in Camden is one of 21 programs funded by RWJF to engage faith communities in policy change activities to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.