Camden Garden Club's eviction could worsen plight in a food desert

Seedlings at the Children's Garden. "We are addressing a crisis," director Michael Devlin said.
Seedlings at the Children's Garden. "We are addressing a crisis," director Michael Devlin said. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 03, 2013

It has been 30 years since the last supermarket set up shop in Camden, at its far southern end - now the only such store in the city. Since then, most residents have turned to bodegas and other small groceries to purchase food.

The Camden Children's Garden and its affiliated Camden City Garden Club have tried to fill the fresh-produce void. But that role may be in jeopardy as the garden faces eviction from its waterfront home.

Each growing season, hundreds of seeds are planted in the Children's Garden grow labs and later transferred to community gardens throughout the city.

Camden's 120 community gardens produce about $2.3 million in fresh produce each year, according a report by Domenic Vitiello, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has researched urban agriculture in Philadelphia, Camden, and Newark, N.J.

"We are addressing a crisis. . . . Camden is a food desert," Children's Garden director Michael Devlin said.

The overall lack of supermarkets in the city has landed parts of Camden on the list of the country's worst food deserts - defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as low-income urban areas in which at least a third of residents live more than a mile from a supermarket that has at least $2 million in annual sales.

Those who reap the benefits of having a mother-ship garden on the waterfront fear that Camden's progress in food sustainability will be harmed if the state succeeds in evicting the Children's Garden from most of its 41/2 acres.

"My staff is really upset. They go in for lessons . . . how to grow plants," said Wilbert Mitchell, executive director of Respond Inc., a city nonprofit that runs educational and job-training programs, including a culinary arts and catering training program. "It would be a major loss to the city if it loses the Camden Children's Garden."

In a letter sent last month, the New Jersey Department of Treasury ordered Devlin to remove all property by March 31. The state has proposed that the Garden Club rent a few of the offices and one greenhouse, now used as an exotic plant exhibit space, but that the rest be transferred to its for-profit neighbor, Adventure Aquarium.

Since the state's plan was publicly announced last week, thousands of supporters have come out for the Children's Garden, starting a Facebook page that has more than 5,600 "likes" and a petition to keep the garden, which has about 1,200 signatures.

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd made her first public comment on the situation Friday, saying she had been in talks with Devlin and state officials.

"I want to see the Children's Garden continue," Redd said. "I support the work they're doing."

Redd, an avid gardener, said the garden's mission of advocating community gardening and healthy eating fits with the city's health and wellness plan.

The nonprofit Children's Garden was created in 1999 as a "horticultural playground" but has expanded its mission to include on- and off-site nutrition and environmental, science, and math programs.

"Bodegas by size and nature can't give bargains on fresh vegetables," said Rod Sadler, a Children's Garden board member and executive director of Save Our Waterfront, an advocacy group for redevelopment. More than 42 percent of people in Camden live in poverty, the highest proportion in the country.

Sadler and other community groups, including Respond, have been working for over a decade to get a supermarket in North Camden. Save-a-Lot has signed a letter of intent to build a smaller-scaled store at Seventh and Linden Streets but is waiting for site control before signing any agreement, Mitchell said.

Developers for the long-delayed Haddon Avenue Transit Village project have had site control since plans began in 2008, but a shovel has yet to go in the ground as they wait for a supermarket anchor guarantee.

The Philadelphia-based Fresh Grocer signed a letter of intent in September, but despite the state's approving $50 million in tax credits for the mixed-use project, the grocery store has yet to sign a lease.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow

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