Kevin Riordan: In Camden, Junior Farmers growing and nurturing

Urban farmer Ari Rosenberg teaches the teens. The program, she says, gives youths a chance, and also transforms the neighborhood.
Urban farmer Ari Rosenberg teaches the teens. The program, she says, gives youths a chance, and also transforms the neighborhood. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 23, 2013

Luis Sánchez grew up on Emerald Street, across from an eight-rowhouse-wide expanse of ground where marigolds grew.

The Creative and Performing Arts High School junior still lives in the same house in Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood.

But a greenhouse and lush clusters of vegetables now also flourish on the 400 block of Emerald, and he is helping with the harvest.

"It's neat to see the change," says Sánchez, 17, one of nine young city residents in the Junior Farmers program run by the nonprofit Center for Environmental Transformation. "I like seeing what we planted grow."

The paid summer internships also include nutrition education and cooking classes. The eight-week program concludes Saturday with a "community lunch" that will feature dishes prepared by the farmers from their garden's bounty.

On the day I visit, glossy heirloom tomatoes, sensationally aromatic "lettuce leaf" basil (who knew?), and leafy greens galore are ripening in the Emerald Street garden. It has been under cultivation for a number of years, and the center also has three other plots in the neighborhood.

The produce goes on sale every Friday from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. at a farmers' market the kids run outside the center at 1729 Ferry Ave.

"What's distinctive about the program is, we're really trying to teach not just agricultural skills, but entrepreneurial skills" as well, says Ari Rosenberg, 28, an urban farmer and educator who began working at the center in March.

"For me, this work is really about equity," the West Philadelphia resident says. "Camden suffers from a lack of access to fruits and vegetables. . . . In Waterfront South in particular, there are no grocery stores, just corner stores."

While "the work we're doing is about giving the youth a chance," Rosenberg says, "it's also a way for us to transform the neighborhood, and provide access to things that people want."

The center is one of several nonprofit enterprises - including Heart of Camden - nurtured by Sacred Heart Church. The Catholic parish for decades has been a catalyst for change in this battered but resilient section of the city.

"The vision that powers the Junior Farmers and the gardens" is different from other urban agriculture programs, says Mark Doorley, president of the center's board of trustees.

"We are a faith-based institution," he notes. "We talk about sustainability [as] not just about growing food to feed people."

Sustainability, Doorley adds, also means teaching neighborhood youths that "they have a voice and they have power to work for change."

With that in mind, the Junior Farmers program sent Rosenberg and three of the interns to a recent conference in Los Angeles called "Rooted in Community."

Selena Colon was one of the farmers who made the trip.

"We learned a lot about food justice," says Colon, 15, a Gloucester Catholic High School sophomore who, like Sánchez, lives on the 400 block of Emerald.

"While we were in California, the issue we brought up was access," she says. "The stores people go to the most in Camden don't have many options."

(Soon, they will have even fewer choices. The city's sole chain supermarket - a Pathmark on Mount Ephraim Avenue - is set to close Sept. 6.)

The interns "came up with the idea of selling some of our produce to corner stores," Colon says.

So on Monday, they broke up into groups and canvassed local merchants in Waterfront South and nearby.

One store owner, Colon says, expressed interest in carrying fresh produce from the center's gardens.

Disappointing?

Even a single yes "is exciting," Rosenberg says. "It means the store is willing to work with us. It means they're willing to change."


Kevin Riordan: >Inquirer.com

To view video of Camden's Emerald Street garden, go to www.inquirer.com/harvest


Kevin Riordan: >Inquirer.com

To view video of Camden's Emerald Street garden, go to www.inquirer.com/harvest


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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