Camden Children's Garden under threat from State of New Jersey

Saint Anthony's Garden, a CCGC garden in Camden. | Photo from CCGC.The city of Camden, N.J. isn’t considered a bastion of local food production. Recognized as one of the top nine food deserts in the country by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 80,000 residents are served by a single supermarket. But the Camden City Garden Club has been working to change that. Since 1985, the club has been helping residents improve their quality of life, health and community through gardening programs and their multi-acre Children’s Garden in Camden.

Despite CCGC’s long-standing success, their garden is now under serious threat. 

In a notice sent to CCGC this past January, the State of New Jersey announced that on March 31 it would be transferring 90 percent of the 4.5-acre garden to the neighboring Adventure Aquarium, owned by the Herschend Family Entertainment corporation headquartered in Atlanta, Ga.

Though no specific plans for the land have been disclosed, says Tracy Nyszczot, public relations consultant at CCGC, the transaction isn’t considered to benefit Camden’s residents. “What percentage of the Aquarium’s income really goes back into Camden?” she asks. “Most Camden residents can’t even afford to go there. I feel like they’re just here to kind of milk the city as a tourist attraction.”

The Children’s Garden opened in 1999 and houses family-friendly attractions including a carousel, butterfly house and themed gardens. But more importantly, the land also serves as the operational space for the Garden Club’s many community and educational programs.

Today, the garden club includes 120 community gardens and an additional 12 school gardens tended by students. The gardens are estimated to feed 12 percent of Camden’s population. CCGC also runs GrowLab, a hands-on, indoor gardening program in which staff members regularly visit schools to teach environmental science, nutrition and math through horticulture. And after 19 years, its Youth Employment and Training Program remains successful, having employed more than 300 area youth – only one of whom has dropped out of high school, despite a citywide dropout rate of more than 60 percent.

After a CCGC press conference and march last week the Children’s Garden founders and supporters are now in talks with the state, mediated by Congressman Robert Andrews and Senator Donald Norcross. Though no official agreement has been made, says Nyszczot, “I’m really hopeful; we got so much support from our elected officials. The community is fuming, so I hope we’ll be able to figure something out soon.”

To find out more about CCGC and how to help save the garden, visit camdenchildrensgarden.wordpress.com/save

MOLLY O'NEILL is a California native turned Philadelphia aficionado. When she's not working on freelance projects, she teaches yoga, revels in the local food scene, and hangs out with her extended family of rescued pit bulls.