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Mike Devlin, 2010 Garden Crusader

Mike Devlin, 2010 Garden Crusader

Mike Devlin, right, with White House Chef Sam Kass. Kass also serves as the senior policy adviser on Healthy Eating Initiatives and is heavily involved in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's anti-obesity initiative, which funds the Camden City Garden Club's Community Gardening Program. 

What does America’s poorest small city have to do with community gardening? Thanks to Mike Devlin, the answer is: a lot!

For 25 years, Mike has been bringing community gardens and educational programs to the residents of Camden, NJ. He has helped build community gardens across the city, created a children’s garden, developed educational programs and much more.

On a recent summer evening, Mike Devlin was at home in Camden, putting up his sixth batch of spaghetti sauce and making pesto. Already, his freezer was bursting with the bounty of his vegetable garden.

“I just really love gardening,” Mike said. “Growing vegetables is the thing I get the most joy out of.” Spreading that joy has become his life’s work.

In recognition of his commitment to helping his city’s poorest urban residents build gardens, Mike Devlin has been awarded the grand prize in Gardener’s Supply’s annual Garden Crusader Awards.

The Garden Club

Mike hasn’t always lived in Camden. He grew up in nearby — and much more affluent — Bergen County. When he was ready to go to law school, he expected to attend the Newark campus of Rutgers University.

“But they lost my application and I ended up at the Rutgers-Camden campus instead,” he said. That clerical error set the stage for the rest of his life. While working as a lawyer, he and his wife, Valerie Frick, put their hearts into creating an expansive and diverse garden behind their row house.

In 1985, Mike and Valerie won the Silver Trowel Award, given by the PBS program “The Victory Garden” for the “Best Home Garden in America.” That same year, they founded the Camden City Garden Club.

The original purpose of the club was to expand community gardening. But Mike and Valerie quickly saw there were many ways they could help with this goal. Programs they have developed include:

  • Building the 4.5-acre Camden Children’s Garden, which is filled with educational exhibits for children.
  • Creating and maintaining 90 food-producing community garden sites.
  • Teaching 550 school children a year about gardening through a National Gardening Association program called Grow Lab
  • Helping teenagers learn about work through a Youth Employment and Training Program that has employed over 300 youth.
The Children’s Garden

While community gardening was the Camden City Garden Club’s original focus, Mike and Valerie set their sights on a program that would attract people to Camden and also educate children about gardening.

In 1993 they started planning the Camden Children’s Garden, and the 4-acre “horticultural playground” opened six years later. Today, it provides educational programs for schools as well as a great place for families to visit. There are exhibits on butterflies, tropical plants, a tree house, storybook gardens and more.

The Children’s Garden also serves as headquarters for the garden club, and provides a place for their community meetings. “More people come to our meetings than to the city council meetings,” Mike said proudly.

Community Gardening in a Food Desert

The statistics for Camden have long been grim. It has been designated the poorest small city in the country — and the most dangerous. Half of its residents are under 20 years old, and 60 percent of its young people don’t graduate from high school.

According to a new study by the University of Pennsylvania, the city has another, more positive, designation: Camden, NJ, has the distinction of being the city with the fastest growing community gardens in the country.

Mike said this growth of community gardening in Camden is driven by intense need — and the surprising amount of available land. Poverty is rampant and there’s little access to quality food and fresh produce. One full-service supermarket serves 80,000 city residents. At the same time, there are 12,000 abandoned lots in Camden and the city owns 4,000 of them.

The growth of community gardening is also due to the vision and leadership of Mike Devlin and the Camden City Garden Club. “There is plenty of land, plenty of hunger and a real desire among residents to build gardens, and we have the resources to help,” Mike said.

After 25 years of building community gardens, Mike sees a new trend emerging. “Young people are really interested in gardening, which is new, but they don’t have a lot of skills,” he said. “A generation ago, a lot more people grew up learning how to garden, so we must do a lot more education than we used to.”

All told, the community gardeners of Camden grew more than 30,000 pounds of fresh food in 2009. The entire community benefited from this bounty. “We find gardeners give away surplus produce to their neighbors and people in need,” Mike said. About 10 percent of Camden’s population gets some of their produce from our programs.”

“I don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” Mike said. “It’s great to see people getting together and building community. And growing food.”

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