Harvest Time: Youth reap the benefits of urban farming in Camden

November 8, 2017

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Teresa Niedda, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Transformation (CFET), and Fredric Byarm, Founder of Invincible City Farms were two of the many inspiring people we had the chance to work with in Camden when Creative New Jersey was launching the city-wide engagement program, Creative Camden.

Over the past year, Teresa and Fredric have become valuable collaborators, not only to Creative New Jersey, but more importantly to each other.  Creative Camden gave them the opportunity to learn more about each other’s work and to see where their experiences and goals are complementary and synergistic.

When Teresa learned that Fredric is a trained chef, with ten appearances on the Food Network, she invited Fredric to work with CFET’s Eco Interns, Assistant and Senior Farmers in a summer-intensive urban farming job training program for Camden high school students– about growing their own food, cooking, and the foundation of nutrition.

I recently spoke with Teresa, her colleague Theo Banks, and Fredric about the two days Fredric spent with the Eco Interns, Assistant and Senior Farmers and asked them to sharetheir experiences.

“The problem with a salty, sugary and high fat diet,” says Chef Fredric Byarm, “is that it covers a multitude of sins: I could take cardboard, spray it with sugar, salt, and fat – your taste buds are going to respond to this – but you’re still eating cardboard.  When it hits your stomach, it will blow up and make you feel full, but you haven’t done any good for yourself.”

Fredric was speaking with a group of 14-19 year olds – part of the Center for Environmental Transformation’s (CFET) summer youth cohort, who were spending the day harvesting the vegetables they’d been learning to grow all summer, cooking their harvest, and then sitting down to share a meal with the CFET staff and Fredric.

“I could see the lightbulbs going off for the young people,” said Fredric.  “That first day, I wanted to pique their curiosity about nutrition and connect it to their lives.  The word ‘nutrition’ is not something you can put your hands on, so I talked with them about the energy component of food and supplying your body with what it needs.”

CFET’s job and leadership program is “an intensive job-training program for Camden youth, which uses urban gardening, cooking, and entrepreneurship as a vehicle to develop leadership capabilities among youth.”  In CFET’s holistic approach, youth are employed and paid to work in the gardens – which include 2 garden sites, a greenhouse, and two fruit orchards in the heart of Camden; run the Farmer’s Market; and learn commercial culinary skills by creating and selling their own hot sauce.  The youth receive training and education on nutrition, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, teamwork, and receive additional culinary training from the Community Food Bank of South Jersey.
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On day two with the youth, Fredric said there was less talking and more cooking, including sautéing, breading, knife skills, and veggie cutting techniques.  On the menu for the day were ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms, fresh sliced tomatoes off the vine, broad-leafed green basil and sautéed carrots from CFET’s gardens.  Fredric’s approach to teaching cooking is hands-off: “I’m not showing them my skills – it’s about them getting their hands on the food.”

CFET’s Theo Banks, the FoodCorps Service Member, was there and agrees with the hands-off approach. CFET’s policy of ‘no sugary drinks’ meant the youth were going to have to come up with their own beverages, so Theo suggested trying flavored water; he offered no additional idea or instruction.  Voila!  Cucumber lemon water became the beverage of choice.  Theo said that many of the youth have tried new things and their food preferences are starting to change.

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The best part of the day, Theo continued, was when Fredric talked about growing up in Camden:

“I grew up four blocks from here.  I told them about where my culinary career was able to take me — the places I got to see and experience because of my degree in culinary arts.”  Fredric continued, “I wanted them to know that you’re not at a deficit just because you’re from Camden.  Believing that can stop you from having incredible experiences.  I wanted to show these young people that it’s possible to be from Camden and be on the Food Network 10 times, and have one of the top 10 restaurants at the Jersey Shore, like I have.”

“It is important for us to make sure that we’re providing role models for our youth who they can relate to, who have similar experiences of Camden, so when I learned about Fredric’s background I saw a natural way for us to partner,” said CFET’s Executive Director, Teresa Niedda.

Two of the youth leaders were in their final summer with CFET and heading off to college: CFET’s Senior Farmer, Dimitrius, came up through the program and predates the current staff.
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What’s most important, Fredric says, is for the young people to know that there are opportunities to use what they’ve learned at CFET and possibly turn it into a career, like the staff at CFET and at Fredric’s start-up company Invincible City Farms, which is in the process of acquiring 20-acres of land inside the City of Camden, with the mission of “addressing food insecurity and food deserts using the basic skills of farming, the basic necessity for healthy foods and the goodwill of humanity.”  Jobs for urban farmers will be available, and maybe some of CFET’s youth might see themselves there.

When I asked Fredric what stuck with him from those two days, he said, “I was really impressed by the level of curiosity in the young population.  They really want to know what’s going on past the headlines.”  In a conversation about one of the corporations in Camden, the students wanted to know what it means for them and for their City: “They asked: Were there environmental issues, security issues – this wasn’t anything I was probing them on.  They brought it to the table on their own, and I think that bodes well for Camden.”

There are many positive, healthy, creative and collaborative projects blooming in the City of Camden, and Teresa and Fredric’s work is one project whose harvest will surely pay dividends well into the future!

Kacy O’Brien is Creative New Jersey’s Director of Programming and is a Lead New Jersey 2015 Fellow.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, collaboration, and inclusion by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy. 

Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.