CAMDEN, NJ — Residents have begun planting the seeds to make Camden a greener and more organic place with additional urban farms, healthier food choices, and support services for diet-related maladies.

During Roots to Prevention’s (RTP) first 2020 meeting last Monday at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, organizers discussed the current project goals.

That includes establishing a distribution channel for Camden growers, developing a new food subsidy voucher that is widely-redeemable and highlighting the benefits of gardening programs.

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“A lot of what we're going to be doing this evening is talking about resident involvement...how can we create an organizational structure that makes sense and that’s practical,” Parkside’s Roots to Market Project Manager, Jonathan Wetstein, told TAPinto Camden at the meeting. “We have so many questions about how we can make these ideas work in Camden, and we definitely believe that those answers are here.”

Funds for the project were made possible by a $250,000 grant from the BUILD Health Challenge and an additional contribution of $250,000 from Virtua Health.

RTP was one of 18 winners, chosen from over 130 applicants to win the award — part of Build Health’s efforts to improve income opportunities and create a healthier community.

Among the first steps of RTP, which has worked with — among others — the Parkside Business & Community in Partnership (PBCIP) and Camden County, is to set up a resident board for local feedback.

It hopes to establish the advisory board in the next few months.

“I’m really big on finding creative ways of introducing vegetables, fruits and other healthy foods into the household,” said Justin DeGuzman after the presentation at the meeting. 

DeGuzman, who owns a business consulting company iCREATE Productions in Camden, said he was undecided on becoming a member of the board, but said he plans to be involved nonetheless.

“The importance of what we put in our bodies cannot be stressed enough and a lot of that comes down to education,” he added. “I’m a firm believer in diet first. In the programs I’ve worked with kids, I’ve noticed keeping a good diet impacts so many other things."

Every voice counts

Wetstein said properly measuring the results and ongoing efforts of the project is vital.

“We want to measure the growth through a small pilot with maybe 10 to 15 growers and see how they do over time, and to see how their income opportunities have increased,” said Rowan University Health & Exercise Science Prof. Nicole Vaughn, who will handle the evaluation and data side.

“We want to take all our findings...and use them to lift Camden up as a model for change in the food economy system," she added.

A pilot study is expected to be published by 2022.

A brainstorming session followed the presentations wherein residents focused on “Data & Evaluation,” “Gardening” and “Food Bucks Rx” — the third, a voucher that would be acceptable at redemption sites such as local neighborhood corner stores and Virtua’s Mobile Farmer’s Market.

Suggestions written in bright marker by group leaders included: Define what healthy food is, meet with groups in all communities, be mindful of safety when choosing your soil, coordinate with stakeholders to understand the different needs of businesses in various areas, and prioritize those in need including seniors and the homeless population.

“It is important to have a program that actually addresses the situation right now in Camden, which is, if you eat healthy you’re less likely to end up at the doctor’s office, less likely to end up in the emergency room and ultimately have a longer life,” said Sheilah Greene, the community outreach specialist for PBCIP.

As three groups broke out during the brainstorming session, Greene was having her own roundtable with Wetstein and Assemblyman Bill Spearman.

“Nutrition is very important. In helping people to not become sick, they can be more successful in their jobs, in school and other parts of their lives,” said Spearman, a Camden native. “I grew up in the projects and I know what it means to be hungry and it’s our goal not only to make sure nobody’s hungry but to provide the right food options.”

Spearman pointed to a bill signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last year that in part establishes a portal in the Department of Agriculture, which allows local farmers to find out how to dispose of their excess food.

"If we implemented something like that here, then organizations like the Cathedral Kitchen [on Federal Street in Camden] could find out where that excess food is, and possibly use it when they're working to feed people in the area."

To become involved in the ongoing initiative or learn about future meetings email RTP@pbcip.org or find RTP on Facebook @RootsToPrevention. 

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