A Forest for the Streets: Rutgers–Camden and LEAP Students Team Up to Grow Food Forest in Camden

By Tom McLaughlin

More needs to be done – and soon, explains Matthew Closter. With one main supermarket, Camden is a USDA-designated food desert. What’s more, the city continues to be plagued by a number of environmental challenges, such as contaminated soil, polluted air, poisoned water, and dumping by polluting industrial facilities.

frontpg-leapSuch drastic concerns require innovative ideas in order for people to gain immediate access to affordable and nutritious food options, says the Ph.D. student in public affairs-community development at Rutgers University–Camden.

“Enticing and building big supermarkets is important, but it is a lengthy and unpredictable process,” says Closter. “Innovation can happen at a small scale, but make a large and meaningful impact.”

So rather than let grass grow under their feet, Closter and fellow Rutgers–Camden and LEAP Academy University Charter School students plan to use composted soil from school waste and grow an urban food forest – one plant bed at a time – that will one day blanket Cooper Street.

A proposal for the project earned the enterprising team a national Social Justice Challenge award of $5,000 from the Rutgers–Newark School of Public Policy and Administration. The judges were particularly impressed by the style and content of the students’ presentation, given on Nov. 23 at Rutgers–Newark.

street-crop“To be collaborating with such a multidisciplinary and multi-age team of Rutgers and LEAP students and faculty, winning this award feels very special,” says the Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. student. “The teamwork demonstrates that everyone contributes in a specific way to generate an idea that will reshape the physical and social landscape along Cooper Street.”

According to statistics cited by the team members, out of a population of 77,000 living in Camden, 40 percent are living in poverty, and more than 30 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls are overweight or obese compared to the national average. The project thus aims to create a communal, ecologically friendly enterprise, foster sustainable food cultivation, and open pathways for building capacity and resiliency in the city.

“Students and families will learn how to be self-sufficient and environmentally friendly in how they utilize composted soil and plant fresh produce,” says Closter. “By empowering the community, people can develop their own means for food production and not be entirely reliant on the expensive and often non-nutritious corner food stores.”

LEAP Academy students have been busy designing the planters, both on the computer screen and in real life in the school’s fabrication lab. In the spring, the first planters – primarily containing vegetables, such as peppers and tomatoes – will be placed in front of the LEAP Academy’s elementary and upper elementary campuses. The vegetables harvested will be served in the LEAP cafeterias and for specially organized community meals. Members of the community will also be invited to plant and to learn how to construct and utilize the planters for their own homes and gardens.

“This project has enlightened my sense of how we can connect a scientific and biological process of composted waste and planter construction to a social justice mission,” says Closter. “When you combine a physical project with values and shared meaning for a community, the prospects and feasibility become very tangible – and tasty!”

The project team is working under the direction and guidance of Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and director of the Community Leadership Center, both at Rutgers–Camden; David Salas-de la Cruz, an assistant professor of chemistry at Rutgers–Camden; and Carlos Mattei-Ramos, director of the LEAP Academy’s fabrication lab. In addition to Closter, team members include Timnit Kefela, a graduate biology student at Rutgers–Camden; Liz Ramos, an undergraduate biology student at Rutgers–Camden; and Eduardo Cruz, Justin Estevez, Bielka Gonzalez, and Karina Velez, LEAP students working in the fabrication lab.

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