CAMDEN NJ — Looking around this city, it’s hard to envision that Camden was once an epicenter of urban gardening.

However, Lewis Bivona, a Rutgers-Camden doctoral student, says there was a time when the city may have actually held that title. 

BIona points to a 2010 University of Pennsylvania report that indicates home-based growers here once created more backyard and neighborhood gardens per person than people in most other New Jersey and U.S. cities. 

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“The city’s rich legacy of gardening was built on maintaining cultural and historical ties,” said Bivona. “Many gardeners had grandparents who were sharecroppers (and) much of the food produced here was mutually shared among neighbors.”

Bivona, a Cherry Hill native who now lives in Gloucester City, says the number of aging gardeners has greatly diminished and Camden’s community garden culture has shrunk.

This city, Bivona believes, is poised to return to its gardening roots with the help of the Camden Urban Agriculture Collaborative (CUAC).

Bivona co-founded CUAC – pronounced “quack” – in 2018 bringing together nonprofit community groups, gardeners and other organizations willing to pool their resources, improve sustainable urban agriculture and fight food insecurity in the city.

Its members include Parkside Business & Community in Partnership, Camden Lutheran Housing Inc., Cooper Lanning Civic Association, Camden City Garden Club, the Center for Environmental Transformation, The Neighborhood Center, VietLead, PowerCorps-Camden, Virtua Health, Free Haven Farms, and community gardeners.

The collaborative got a financial boost last September when the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded it a $293,000 federal grant, money that is enabling it to educate city residents about urban gardening, create a survey of Camden’s urban farmers and gardeners, acquire gardening tools and supplies, develop a shared marketing plan and start city-based “garden hubs.”

“The idea is that, if you live in Camden, you would be no more than a 10-minute walk from one of these hubs,” Bivona said.

The federal grant will also help an urban agriculture apprentice program to give urban gardeners skills for community organizing, to obtain financing and learn entrepreneurship, Bivona said.

Urban gardening, Bivona said, could boost the local economy as Camden growers supply food to neighborhood grocery stores and supermarkets, and trigger new “buy local” initiatives. “If production ramps up, a lot of food can be produced and a large portion of Camden could be fed this way,” he said.

Bivona also said it could foster community resilience. “There is a lot of potential in centering the community around food – something that communities used to be built upon until the late 1800s.”

Bivona, 31, has experience in these areas. He has a bachelor’s degree in community and environmental planning from Rowan University and he holds dual master’s degrees in political science and community/regional planning from Rutgers–New Brunswick.

Bivona also says CUAC is helping Rutgers–Camden bring together typically disparate community groups and helping them understand the health and nutritional benefits of urban gardening.

“It enables people to engage with plants and animals in a way that is more than just watching weeds grow through the sidewalk,” Bivona said. “Studies show that more exposure (people have) to nature, especially in early formative years, the more likely they are to care about it later in life.”

One of the primary goals of the collaborative, said Bivona, is to restore that legacy of community gardening in Camden being completely resident-driven. “All of the grant activities,” he says, “are building toward that objective.”

Tom McLaughlin, Rutgers University–Camden media specialist, contributed to this report.