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A Bountiful Acre in Camden

September 1, 2014 | Camden, Community News

Urban_PromiseCamden’s UrbanPromise Wellness Center garden is a true oasis. The 17 raised beds, forming the shape of a labyrinth, provide a restful retreat, a bounty of fresh vegetables, and a source of wonder for the Urban Promise school children who plant seeds in the garden and watch them grow.

“The overall goal of the UrbanPromise Wellness Center is to reduce the impact of toxic stress on everyone in the UrbanPromise community,” explained Rebecca Bryan, the Wellness Center Director. “We’re always trying to help kids get through adverse times in a healthier way. A labyrinth is a sacred space, a quiet, reflective space but at same time ours is a source for good nutrition and heathy eating.”

An early rudimentary garden took root in 2013. A mini-grant from New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids-Camden (NJPHK-C) helped to expand the garden program this year.

Bryan said that many families and children are not familiar with fresh produce; so things that grow in the earth can seem foreign. “Our aim was to balance being functional and educational. We knew the garden would be wonderful learning environment plus a source of produce. When we introduced vegetables as part of hands-on activities, the kids ate them and really liked them.”

All the vegetables and flowers were started from seed or seedlings donated by the Camden Children’s Garden, the Center for Environmental Transformation and volunteers who donated tomatoes and pepper plants. Christ’s Church in Marlton donated 25 blueberry bushes.

The garden boasted an array of herbs, lots of basil, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, peppers, sweet potatoes and all kinds of squash. An amazing crop of pumpkins flourished, including ghost (white) pumpkins and warty ones.

“We try to choose plants that will be unique and interesting and different,” said Nadia Vanderkuip, an UrbanPromise intern. “We grew purple potatoes and strawberry corn that has reddish-pink kernels. The watermelons are called star and moon because of the light markings on the dark green rinds.”

In the spring, 3rd, 5th and 8th graders cleaned out the garden beds, prepared the soil, and planted seedlings, which they’d started in the classroom. In late May, the children made a meal out of their garden produce — a big salad with radishes and carrots. The campers in UrbanPromise’s nine Camden summer camps also harvested produce to made zucchini cupcakes, mint ice cream, potato skins and lots of salsa.

Through the garden, UrbanPromise harvested and shared close to 500 pounds of food.

One beneficiary was television journalist Diane Sawyer. Sawyer became a supporter of UrbanPromise about eight years ago when she did a story on Camden. She has kept in touch with two students in particular, Ivan Stevens and Karim Council, who were in 1st and 2nd grades at the time. When Sawyer recently changed jobs, the young men traveled to New York to present Sawyer with good luck basket of tomatoes, hot peppers, fresh basil and sunflowers and wild flowers.

Looking ahead, Bryan wants to continue embedding the gardens into classroom curriculum and start using the produce in the school cafeteria. She dreams of a greenhouse and is looking for more green space in neighborhoods so families can start their own gardens.

“The NJPHK-C grant enabled us buy gardening supplies for the children and build cold frames to expand the growing year.” said Bryan. “We can do a lot with volunteers, but at end of day it takes seed money to move things forward. We appreciate the support of NJPHK-C—it helped bring the garden to life.”

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