Camden Food Economy Strategy

Cultivating Camden: The City’s Food Economy Strategy

In 2015, DVRPC released Cultivating Camden: The City's Food Economy Strategy, which sought to increase food access and improve economic opportunities in Camden, New Jersey. Cultivating Camden was based on the ongoing work of DVRPC, the Campbell Healthy Communities program, and The Reinvestment Fund. It grew out of a desire to better understand Camden's food system so that food system actors, stakeholders, and funders could be more strategic, coordinated, and effective in their work.

Staff conducted key stakeholder interviews, held Work Group and Advisory Committee meetings, researched current initiatives and resources, and proposed a range of recommendations to improve Camden City’s food system and food economy. This process led to the publication of Cultivating Camden: The City’s Food Economy Strategy, as well as the creation of many strong relationships and enduring partnerships across Camden.

The full report can be found here: Cultivating Camden: The City's Food Economy Strategy

Cultivating Camden: A Status Report

A lot has changed in Camden since DVRPC published Cultivating Camden: new businesses, residents, programs, and funding opportunities have come to the city, bringing new energy and optimism. However, not everyone has experienced the same sense of renewal. Some Camden neighborhoods saw businesses close and more households enter into poverty during this time. Even more recently, the economic recession brought about by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic slowed or reversed some of the positive changes the city had been experiencing and led to additional increases in unemployment and food insecurity.

This report takes a look at Camden’s food system five years after DVRPC originally released Cultivating Camden. It analyzes the most recent demographic and economic data to better understand how the food system may have changed during this time. It also shares some of the progress that has been made towards, as well as the barriers to, implementing the recommendations in Cultivating Camden. Finally, it details some of the new programs and initiatives working to improve Camden’s food system that have arisen in the past five years.

The full report can be found here: Cultivating Camden: A Status Report

Recommendations: Status Report and Barriers to Implementation

DVRPC reviewed news articles, surveyed members of the Camden Food Access Working Group, corresponded directly with individual organizations, and used staff knowledge of Camden food system efforts to better understand the status of the 33 recommendations originally proposed in Cultivating Camden. DVRPC found that two of the recommendations in Cultivating Camden were completed in the past five years, with another nine underway. Many of the recommendations that are marked as in progress are related to very successful programs that have made great strides and continue to grow. More information on some of the recommendations and various programs working to implement them can be found below and in the status report.

Recommendations in Action

Food Bucks Rx (FBRx) in Camden
Food Bucks RX (FBRX) in Camden Heading.  Image of people tabling in front of the Parkside Learning Garden.

Institutions Recommendation: Implement FreshRx programs with vouchers for healthy food and integrate nutrition education at each hospital in Camden

There are several produce prescription (or “Food Bucks Rx”) programs active in Camden, managed by The Food Trust and several healthcare partners. The Food Trust launched one of their first pilots in 2018 in partnership with the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers (Camden Coalition), Cooper Pediatrics, and Fayer’s Market, with funding from Campbell Soup Company and the USDA. In this program, Cooper Pediatrics healthcare providers screened families for food needs during a child’s regular check-up appointment. If the screening identified a need, social workers would provide families with food resource information like the location of food pantries. Families who were already enrolled in SNAP also received FBRx vouchers that they could redeem for fresh fruits and vegetables at Fayer’s Market or at the seasonal Virtua Farmers Market. In 2020, thanks to expansion of the USDA Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, families with children enrolled in Medicaid plans became eligible to receive FBRx as well. As of May 2021, Cooper families have redeemed over $6,500 in FBRx for fresh produce.

Virtua Health’s Food as Medicine program is another produce prescription program in Camden. Virtua healthcare providers can refer patients that have been diagnosed with a diet-related chronic disease and are experiencing food insecurity to the Eat Well Food Farmacy program. The program provides nutrition education, social support services, and access to free produce and nonperishable groceries at Virtua’s Mount Holly and Camden locations. Virtua Health is now also providing FBRx to patients, which complements its other wrap-around services (more information follows).

The Roots to Prevention Partnership (RTP) Camden—a cross-sector group of food system organizations, healthcare providers, community organizations, educational institutions, and local governments—is also working to expand produce prescription programs throughout the city. RTP Camden was one of 18 collaborations nationwide that received a 2019 BUILD Health Challenge® grant. With matching funds from Virtua Health and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, RTP Camden is working to increase income opportunities for urban farmers and healthy food choices for residents in Camden. They are doing this by:

  • convening an Advisory Board of Camden residents to help guide RTP Camden programs and decisions;
  • expanding the FBRx program to additional healthcare providers and adding redemption sites across Camden, such as healthy corner stores and Virtua’s Eat Well Mobile Farmers Market and Mobile Grocery Store;
  • expanding access to wrap-around supports and social services that promote healthy lifestyles;
  • administering free for-profit garden training, food safety, cooking, and nutrition workshops online; and
  • supplementing Virtua Health’s Food Access Programs with fresh produce grown by Camden residents.

Between July 2020 and July 2021, RTP Camden partner organizations distributed FBRx vouchers to approximately 200 patients through different pilot programs, with over $5,500 redeemed. Virtua Health is distributing FBRx to Food Farmacy participants, and the Camden Coalition is distributing FBRx to patients who identify as food insecure at participating Accountable Health Communities screening sites. The Food Trust also onboarded seven additional corner stores as FBRx redemption partners, bringing the total number of mobile stop and corner store redemption sites in Camden to 15, offering residents more convenient options to use FBRx to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

In addition to expanding FBRx programs in Camden, RTP Camden has also brought together nonprofits, hospitals, universities, and government agencies to expand the evidence base for food-related programming. Faculty from Rowan University’s Health and Exercise Sciences Department are leading the data collection and analysis component of the RTP Camden work. Working with Virtua and the Camden Coalition, they will evaluate the program’s impact on both FBRx recipients and Camden growers.

Above photo: Taste test at the Parkside Learning Garden | Source: Jonathan Wetstein, Parkside Business and Community in Partnership

Virtua Health's Eat Well Mobile Farmers Market and Mobile Grocery Store
Virtua Health's Eat Well Mobile Farmers Market and Mobile Grocery Store.

Government Recommendation: Work with alternative models of grocery stores to locate in Camden City at prime or transit-accessible spots, such as near the universities or at the redesigned Rand Transportation Center.

Although no new brick and mortar grocery stores opened in Camden in recent years, Virtua Health’s Eat Well Initiative launched two mobile food retail options. Started in the spring of 2017, the Mobile Farmers Market is a traveling produce stand that sells fruits and vegetables at eight locations throughout Burlington and Camden counties, including five locations in the city of Camden. The Mobile Farmers Market is housed in a 23-foot bus and features significantly subsidized produce, which Virtua obtains through a partnership with Whole Foods Markets. The market offers seasonal produce through a partnership with Free Haven Educational Farms in Lawnside, New Jersey. Customers pay a fixed amount to fill up either a small bag ($3 for six items) or large bag ($9 for 20 items).The market also provides a 50 percent discount to customers who use their SNAP/Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, making its produce more accessible to a wider range of customers. Finally, the market works with registered dietitians to provide health education and nutrition education to ultimately reduce chronic disease and food insecurity.

Since it was launched, the Mobile Farmers Market has distributed over 250,000 pounds of fresh produce. Additionally, to help meet the need of individuals experiencing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic, Virtua temporarily converted the Mobile Farmers Market into a mobile food pantry, distributing over 16,500 bags of free food and supplies between mid-March and mid-August of 2020.

In the fall of 2020, Virtua Health introduced the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store. Virtua converted a decommissioned city bus, which was generously donated by New Jersey Transit, into a year-round store-on-wheels. This 40-foot mobile store offers access to fresh fruits, vegetables, bread, milk, eggs, rice, meat, and more at seven locations across Camden and Burlington counties, including three sites in the city of Camden. The Mobile Grocery Store offers its products for at least 20 percent below retail prices, and since its inception, has had over 1,500 transactions. On average, nearly 35 percent of gross sales are SNAP/EBT transactions.

Above photo: Virtua Health’s Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store | Source: DMH Photography, Virtua Health

Urban Agriculture Feasibility Study
Urban Agriculture Feasibility Study. Image of students farming at the Resilient Roots farm in Camden.

Community Organizations Recommendation: Establish a commercial-scale urban farm that balances the needs for job training, nutrition education, and for-profit food production.

Although no individual or organization has established a commercial farm in Camden yet, the Urban Agriculture Feasibility Study for the City of Camden includes financial feasibility analyses for two types of urban farming operations: a soil-based farm and a hydroponic farm. The study notes that both models present a number of challenges, with hydroponic farming requiring substantial upfront costs and the more traditional, soil-based model having shorter growing seasons and lower yields. Additionally, the study suggests that both types of operations would face significant funding and policy barriers, making commercial urban agriculture in Camden a very challenging proposition. However, the study notes that a more community-focused urban farming model may be possible given the correct policy and economic conditions and supports.

Above photo: Students farming at the Resilient Roots Farm in Camden | Source: Long Luu, VietLead

Heart Smarts Program
Heart Smarts Program Banner.  Image of students providing nutrition education at a Camden corner store through the Heart Smarts Program.

Economic Development Recommendations: Expand the Heart Bucks Program for healthy purchases in Camden’s Corner Stores.

The Food Trust launched the Heart Smarts Program in 2014, providing nutrition education and Heart Bucks—vouchers redeemable for heart healthy food—at 10 healthy corner stores across Camden. In the first year, The Food Trust distributed approximately $3,000 worth of Heart Bucks to 750 people, with a redemption rate of about 85 percent. The Food Trust has continued to provide Heart Smarts programming throughout the city, distributing over $10,740 worth of Heart Bucks to 1,963 people from August 2020 through July 2021. Additionally, the program has seen redemption rates of about 99 percent in recent years.

The Food Trust has continued to grow Heart Smarts, partnering with the Camden County Health Department to offer health screenings in conjunction with Heart Smarts programming. In 2019, the New Jersey Department of Health approved Heart Smarts programming as SNAP-Ed eligible activities, which means that SNAP-Ed educators can use the Heart Smarts programming in their classes as well.

Finally, The Food Trust nutrition educators continued to provide Heart Smarts programming throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, both virtually through a series of nine nutrition education videos online and through weekly, in-person, outdoor, nutrition education events at 11 corner stores.

Above photo: Heart Smarts programming outside a Camden corner store | Source: Amy Verbofsky, DVRPC

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