Food costs, healthier diet spark growing interest in N.J. community gardens

Inspired by the locavore movement, the White House kitchen garden and the increasing cost of food in an unsteady economy, more and more people are rolling up their sleeves and digging in the dirt to grow their own food.

A number of locales in South Jersey have started community gardens for their residents. They provide gardening plots for residents who don’t have enough space at home to plant in their backyard, they foster a sense of community spirit and they help people stay healthy while reducing their food costs.

The Camden City Garden Club was one of South Jersey’s pioneers in the community garden arena and has served as a national model for the community gardening movement. Founded by Camden resident Mike Devlin and his wife Valerie (who were once featured on the PBS show “The Victory Garden“), the couple has created 120 community gardens since they started their first one in Camden in 1985.

The Camden Community Garden program serves an estimated 12 percent of Camden’s total population. The garden has become an important resource for the residents of Camden, since the city has only one supermarket and has been identified as one of the top nine “food deserts” in the United States.

The program has created “grow labs” to grow plants in Camden schools and daycare centers. A 2009 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that Camden had one of the fastest growing community garden programs in the United States, despite its status as one of America’s poorest cities. 

According to Delvin, the latest accomplishment (among many) for the program is that it was featured in Michelle Obama’s new book, “American Grown.” It was also recently adopted by Whole Foods’ Mid Atlantic region, which sent 70 employees to the Community Garden program’s urban agriculture site to help expand it.

Prospective gardeners pay $25 per year for their plots, which includes plants, seeds, fertilizer and lime. Gardeners who produce a surplus often donate it for use to residents in need. The program also has a robust youth volunteer program. Of the 300 young people who have served as volunteers, over 30 percent have gone on to college. With all of these achievements, Devlin and his enthusiastic team of gardeners and volunteers have a lot to be proud of.

Not far from Camden, organizers in Mount Laurel started a community garden project in April of 2012 on the grounds of Blue Hill Farm.

During a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony, residents were treated to a vermicomposting class, where the focus was on composting with worms.

Ed Cohen, of Mount Laurel’s Green Team, says the area has a number of condo and apartment dwellers who don’t have backyard space to plant, which has led to a local interest in the creation of a community garden.

The concept fit in very well with Mount Laurel’s interest in making greener opportunities available for its residents. Cohen says the grant to cover the costs of the community garden comes from the Burlington County Municipal Park Development Program.

Gardeners who are interested in signing up pay a one-year rental fee ranging from $10 per year for a 10-foot by 10-foot plot to $40 for a 20 by 20-foot plot. Gardeners must attend an orientation and are required to tend to their plots. Almost all crops are allowed. The only two exceptions are corn and sunflowers as Cohen says these items tend to cast too much shade.

 

Below, we’ve included some of the other local community garden programs in South Jersey (note that some have waiting lists) Have one to add to the list? Tell us about it in the comments below:

Burlington County:

Burlington County Community Agricultural Center: The garden is currently full-to be placed on the waiting list, call 856-642-3850 .
Delanco-Pennington Park: The garden is currently full-to be placed on the waiting list, call 856-642-3850 

 

Camden County:

Camden: Camden City Garden Club (multiple locations): 
Woodland Community Development Corporation:
Haddonfield (Crow’s Woods Gardeners)
Haddon Heights (Sustainable Haddon Heights)

 

Gloucester County:

Woodbury Community Garden

 

 

Jersey Bites is a collaborative website of food writers in New Jersey. They write about restaurants, recipes, food news, food products, events, hunger relief programs, and anything else that tickles their taste buds.

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