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Foraging, Food Deserts and Resilience in Action

Rationally Creative

For those of you who have followed us since the beginning, you might remember a very lovely lady named Lauren who helped us get off the ground as our first illustrious intern. She left Atlanta to participate in FoodCorps in New Jersey and wrote the following piece that we think beautifully sums up the dual beauty and struggle of our food system and collective movement toward community and individual resilience:

"One of the first things we learn to do in the garden is how to weed. Weeds are the endless bane of the grower's existence. The pebble in the shoe. The pesky irritation that promises to persist.

Weeds, like all plants, just want to grow.  We see them as invaders, pests, or the "bullies of the gardens" as I tell my students.  But before the next yank, I urge you to take a moment to look at them differently.

With rapidly growing root systems, weeds actually stabilize the soil and can prevent erosion.  If left undisturbed, or even just dead on the surface of the garden, these plants add much to the soil's overall organic matter.

From the biodynamic perspective, weeds are the language through which the soil talks. Weeds signal the composition of the nutrient make-up of the soil. If you know how to read the signs, you can easily see what the soil lacks or has in abundance.  For instance, if dandelions and nettles blemish your turf, your soil's PH is on the acidic side of the spectrum. Amending the soil with limestone, wood ashes, or even compost treatments to achieve a more neutral pH is one option. Or, you can choose to grow plants that thrive under such conditions-potatoes, shallots, watermelons, and hydrangeas.


Growers, foragers, and chefs alike are rethinking weeds by rekindling traditional recipes with edible weeds. Soups, salads, medicines, teas, and tonics breathe the wisdom of the past for a healthier future. If we are what we eat, and if such weeds can prosper under the most unlikely of situations, wouldn't you want to be consuming this vigor? Instead of a nuisance, weeds become a centerpiece for beautiful potential.

The weed wisdom stems from its unmatched resilience. Defined as "the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness," resilience is a crucial attribute in order to sustain. No matter the conditions, weeds somehow manage to grow. You can pick, pluck, pull, and prod all you want, but weeds will always find their way back. Even through the cracks of city sidewalks, weeds will emerge, bountiful and wild, among the broken glass and cigarette butts.

FoodCorps service members know a thing or two about resilience. By teaching children how to grow food, make healthy nutritional choices, and generate strong local food communities, FoodCorps programming enables youth to steer the boat towards a sustainable future, leaving obesity and diet-related maladies in the wake.

However, where some FoodCorps members serve, we not only have to overcome the endless red tape of policy and bureaucracy, but a certain prevalent sense that the city is beyond repair, smothered by so many weeds. Such is the case with one of FoodCorps' newest sites, Camden, New Jersey.

A once-thriving port, this working-class community spawned essential industrial development throughout the Greater Philadelphia area as well as New York City. Today, urban ecologists pronounce the city as "dying", while the recent Rolling Stone's issue claims Camden as "America's Most Desperate Town". It seems every media outlet takes its turn to explore and exploit the underbelly of Camden. The disturbing reports of violence, corruption, drug use, feed the broken-record narrative that Stephen Danley, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University in Camden, refers to as "poverty-porn."

With every Camden horror-article, the backlash from the community is rife with complaints and declarations that yearn for the media to paint a different picture of their city. The media's slant casts dark shadows upon Camden's reality, tainting an outsider's perspective and the city's general reputation.

Regardless of the good that's going, it is in our nature to focus on the negatives.  They are the most obvious and the roots of our frustrations.  We curse the splinters, despite the sturdy wooden structures.

Yet, it is precisely the existence of such seeming "splinters" that have allowed for incredible progress within the Camden's local food system.

Camden sees the growth of over 100 community gardens, scattered throughout the city's once-abandoned lots. According to South Jersey Times, the gardens measure to about 27 acres, accumulating the equivalent of $2.3 million in food during 2012. 22 corner stores are enrolled in the Camden Healthy Corner Store Network of The Food Trust, offering refrigerators full of produce, quality meats and dairy choices within a few blocks of residents' doorsteps. Over eight mobile markets crisscross the city, stopping weekly at different concentrated neighborhoods.


The loss of the city's only supermarket this past September leaves Camden a "food desert" by nomenclature standards. However, with so many nonprofit organizations and grassroots initiatives, wholesome foods become more and more accessible throughout the area. Until 2015, when a new supermarket is slated to open, Camden residents will rely on the above-listed non-corporatized outlets for fresh foods. However, once open, that one-size-fits-all mentality of the supermarket may just not jive with a city whose residents are on foot more than in car and who's budgets cannot afford bulk over-shopping excursions. The current growth and expansion of the localized system could continue to be the dominant food source, providing a more stable and sustainable food fixture for Camden culture.

In the toughest of environments, Camden manages to grow.  Its community evolved that way.

And like so many post-industrial American cities, Camden may have not bounced back to its original form, but perhaps its unraveling establishes a space for adaptation. Such struggles may very well be the harbingers of innovation and durability.

Like with weeds, we cannot discredit the potential within the things that frustrate our endeavors. Just taking the time to look at them differently is the first step towards resilience."

Lauren Ladov, Food Corps Member - NJ (A version of this article was published NJ Farm to School Newsletter)