Educational Growth: Community Garden Will Engage Local K-12 Youth and University Students

By Tom McLaughlin

Rutgers University–Camden will soon be home to a community garden, blossoming with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But much more than that, the space – located behind the Office of Civic Engagement at 67 Penn Street on the Rutgers–Camden campus – will be fertile grounds for a vast array of learning opportunities.

Students in Lew Bivona’s urban agriculture class, who will handle much of the groundwork, design, and facilitation of the community garden.

The community garden project, led by Michael D’Italia, program coordinator for the Office of Civic Engagement at Rutgers–Camden, and Lew Bivona, a doctoral student in the Ph.D. program in public affairs, is already generating great partnerships across campus and beyond.

“This community garden is another step to connect our campus – our students, faculty, and staff – to the community,” says P.J. Craig, assistant director of K-12 partnerships for the Office of Civic Engagement at Rutgers–Camden.

Among the projects, notes Craig, students in grades 4 to 8 participating in Rutgers Ignite – an expanded learning afterschool program – at Holy Name School and Thomas H. Dudley Family School in Camden will help maintain the garden.

“The students will have the opportunity to learn about different vegetables, to care for the plants, to harvest, to cook, and to feast,” exclaims Craig.

Bivona has been teaching an urban agriculture class, wherein students are tasked with designing the garden. Rutgers–Camden undergraduate students will begin planting seedlings in the spring.

Amanda Ketterer, a double major in political science and urban studies, explains that the initiative utilizes the Roots and Shoots model – created by biologist Jane Goodall – to teach participants how to live sustainably among people, animals, and the environment.

The model uses a five-step program to teach young people how to make a difference in the community, while also learning how to become “global citizens,” says the Cherry Hill resident, who has been active in the program since she was eight years old and is now an international peer mentor certified to create and guide Roots and Shoots groups.

The community garden will cultivate a growing sense of community through partnerships with North Camden residents.

“Our goal is to combine the formula of Roots and Shoots with the community garden to make a natural, peaceful space for residents, Rutgers–Camden students, and K-12 students to learn from and enjoy,” says Ketterer, who originated the idea of engaging K-12 youth through a garden with Taylor Melodick-Robinson, a recent Rutgers–Camden graduate in English.

According to Ketterer and Craig, North Camden is considered a “food-insecure area,” and the community garden aims to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables to students locally and on campus.

“This is our first year and, while we don’t know what to expect, our hope is that we will generate enough produce to help people who are hungry,” says Craig.

Ketterer adds that the garden will cultivate a growing sense of community through partnerships with North Camden residents. For instance, the Camden Urban Agricultural Collaborative hopes to glean experience for the group’s efforts to create a module of an ideal community garden.

“When a community comes together, positive change is made,” says Ketterer, who formerly attended Camden County College and George Mason University. “What better place to start than a beautiful garden?”

Funding for the project has been provided by a network of sources, including an Engaged Civic Learning Course Grant awarded by Rutgers–Camden Chancellor Phoebe A. Haddon. In addition, Ketterer herself is a Fund II Roots and Shoots National Fellowship recipient, which provides a $3,000 stipend to the leader and five $200 mini grants to support local Roots and Shoots groups. She is also a sales associate and educational hayride speaker at Springdale Farm and Market in Cherry Hill, which will be supplying materials and seeds for the garden.

Rutgers–Camden professors are already incorporating the community garden into their courses. Among them, Kimberlee Moran, an associate teaching professor and director of forensics at Rutgers–Camden, hosted an archeological survey on the site in January.

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