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Rain gardens, community gardens and more gardens in Camden

Various city and outside agencies have been using their green thumbs to not just beautify Camden but also help retain stormwater and provide fruits and vegetables to hundreds of residents.

Lots of greening and health-related projects are going on in Camden these days.

The Nature Conservancy, as part of a new mission of working in urban areas, has teamed up with the Camden SMART initiative to green and beautify the city.

The Nature Conservancy and its city partners plan to install cisterns, a small rain garden and a system to capture rainwater near Von Neida Park, said nature conservancy spokeswoman Maggie Foote. The agency also plans to conduct a rain garden site design study for a larger, primary rain garden that will target further reduction in storm water and sewer backup.

With Camden's poor underground infrastructure (sewage and rainwater go into the same pipes), any little bit of rain can cause a sewage overflow. While rain gardens are not the long-term solution, they help capture some of the rainwater that would otherwise go into the pipes and possibly cause them to overflow, said Camden County Municipal Authority executive director Andy Kricun. He added that about 20 rain gardens have been planted throughout the city with another eight planned for this summer.

"Thus far, those rain gardens remove about 1.5 million gallons of rainwater per year, which definitely improves the situation," Kricun said. "But it is really just the tip of the iceberg, as the stormwater problem is greater than that."

The Nature Conservancy installation will be at the corner of River Avenue and North 29th Street, which Foote said will reduce storm water flows downhill into neighboring Von Neida Park, a 19-acre city park.

"Rain gardens contain water-loving grasses, wildflowers and other plants that thrive in areas of heavy water flow, and help absorb and filter impure water," Foote said. "The project will therefore also add natural beauty, as well as improve quality of life in an urban neighborhood in the heart of Camden."

Also this month, state Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher announced that New Jersey has enough federal funding ($3.88 million) to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for the 2012-2013 school year to 155 schools  in 18 counties.

The program provides fresh produce to students during the school day, along with nutrition education.  The idea behind the program is that by exposing children to healthy foods, they begin to consume more fruits and vegetables, ultimately leading to improved lifelong dietary habits.

The Camden schools that will participate in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for the 2012-2013 school year are:

Davis Elementary School

Dudley Family School

Forest Hill School

John Greenleaf Whittier School

Lanning Square Broadway Annex

Lanning Square Elementary School

McGraw Elementary School

Sharp Elementary

Sumner Elementary

Veterans Memorial Family School

Wiggins College Preparatory Lab School

Yorkship Elementary School

D.U.E. Season Charter School

Holy Name School

LEAP Academy University Charter School

Finally, the Camden Children's Garden continues to prop up more community gardens throughout the city. One of its most recent projects was a large garden in Bergen Square, which it developed in a partnership with Whole Foods. It was one of five gardens Whole Food staffers and Camden gardeners developed on May 23.

The gourmet health food chain has committed to working in Camden for two years on volunteer projects, food security, community gardening, nutrition and horticultural education. A GrowLab School program, Youth Job Training and Employment Program will also be incorporated into the partnership.

"Whole Foods Market will help to advance the Camden Children's Garden's overall mission and outreach by inspiring and educating people of all ages," the company's news release said. "We plan to work together to provide opportunities to improve the community's quality of life, health and community through horticulture."

On the heels of the Whole Food partnership came the release of First Lady Michelle Obama's book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. The book features the Camden Children's Garden, the Camden City Garden Club Inc. and Camden's Community Garden's Program as part of its display of about a dozen gardens throughout the nation. Pictures of Camden youth gardening and fresh, bright produce stand out in the two-page spread dedicated to Camden's gardens.