“There are positive things happening here”
Be honest: when you think of Camden, New Jersey, a certain image comes to mind – and it probably doesn’t include local teens cultivating a community garden.
But had you visited the Beckett Street Urban Farm last summer, you would have seen teams of SCA members raising peppers, cucumbers, kale and more. Ostensibly, their objective was to grow affordable vegetables for area schools and families; in reality, crew members concede they had an ulterior motive.
“People say Camden is dirty and bad,” states 15-year old Miriam Gonzalez. “By making everything more beautiful and pretty, we’re making the community better.”
Camden is ranked as America’s most dangerous city. Much of its built environment is in decay. The Beckett Street Farm used to be a vacant lot. But in addition to growing crops, these SCA students are growing hope. Not just for them but for the entire neighborhood.
“My friends said my job was pointless, that you don’t get paid enough,” Hanif Williams recalls. “But I told them I’m not just here for the money. I’m here for my community. From my perspective, you get more than the paycheck.” Hanif is 15. His SCA learnings were not limited to horticulture.
Camden is what is known as a “food desert.” Fresh produce is so scarce, locals routinely settle for less nutritious alternatives, leading to health issues like obesity and diabetes. Seventeen-year old Desmond Hill admits he “never tasted a fresh vegetable right off the vine” until he joined the SCA Camden crew three years ago. He’s been back every summer since and hopes to return as a crew leader to show others the value of service. “If I can give back to my community,” Desmond says, “maybe our violence rate will go down. Maybe it’ll look a little nicer. And maybe people will eat healthier foods.”
SCA engages nearly 2,000 under-served youth in conservation leadership programs like this in more than a dozen cities nationwide including Chicago, Oakland, and Washington, DC. The Camden team is sponsored in part by Campbell Soup, which is headquartered nearby, and their harvests go to the Camden Children’s Garden, which accounts for 10% of the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed at local tables.
“This is an extra-positive thing for Camden,” says Tyra Stanley, 15, “because instead of having people think all the negative stuff, we’re showing there are positive things happening here. We’re growing this food with a lot of love.”