Givers: Camden Street Learning Garden

Growing Out of the Concrete

Camden Street Learning Garden
nourishes neighbors

by Katherine Poole
photograph courtesy Camden Street Learning Garden

Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? If the answer to this question borrowed from a lyric by rap artist Tupac Shakur is no, then it won’t be for long. Downtown growers at the Camden Street Learning Garden are creating life, health, and beauty where it’s needed most.

Travel east along Martin Street, past trendy restaurants and shops, and you will find yourself in a food desert – an area where the predominantly low-income population has limited access to fresh, healthy, whole food. But keep going, and at the intersection with Camden Street, an acre of land has become an oasis – a garden lush with vegetation, buzzing with activity. It is a community garden that provides fresh produce for the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, a working classroom to teach folks how to take the seed to the supper table, and a tranquil space for cultivating food, friendships, and life-changing skills. 

The Learning Garden broke ground three years ago as a satellite branch of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. The local
nonprofit’s mission is to “feed, teach, grow” by pioneering “innovative, transformative solutions designed to end hunger in our community.” Partnering with area churches, organizations, and other agencies, the Food Shuttle reaches low-income neighborhoods through health education, culinary job training, neighborhood gardens, and hunger relief programs. It’s a mission Reanna Hawkins, the Learning Garden’s site coordinator, takes to heart.

Hawkins came to the garden the same way many people do: out of curiosity. She first learned about it from a fellow student while studying for a degree in nutrition at N.C. Central University. Hawkins was immediately intrigued, because she’d recently worked for Detroit’s year-round farmers market and had become ignited by the urban food movement there. It didn’t take long for Hawkins to dig in at Camden Street, first becoming a volunteer, then an intern, then a part-time employee. Last May, she became site coordinator.

Coordinate she does. Hawkins maintains the Camden Street grounds, which include a 420-square-foot, chemical-free garden, a 6,000-gallon rainwater catchment system, a green house, a kitchen classroom, a state-of-the-art composting system managed by CompostNow, and beehives tended by Alice Hinman of Apiopolis. Hawkins also oversees the myriad programs and classes the garden offers, all of which serve the garden’s dual purpose: to provide for the community and to educate.

Cultivating community

Camden Street Learning Garden’s 24 raised beds are tended by residents of nearby neighborhoods. Hawkins estimates that anywhere from 12 to 20 of the beds stay active, which she views as a high percentage. For an income-sensitive population, she says, basic necessities like housing, transportation, and childcare can be high barriers, sometimes making the simple act of tending a small garden impossible. But the garden does boast a core group of longtime gardeners, and Hawkins says there is always a place for someone new. “People just come into the garden. It’s a very inviting space,” she says.

That often starts with a conversation. Someone will walk by, then stop and ask what is going on. “Gardening,” Hawkins will answer. An individual might reveal some experience with gardening or farming, to which Hawkins will say: “Great. I can use your expertise. Come on in.”

The Learning Garden offers these folks a number of programs and workshops to teach gardening and cooking skills that promote healthy living, self-sufficiency, and an appreciation for where food comes from. Its signature program, Seed to Supper, is a comprehensive five-week gardening course taught by N.C. State Master Gardeners in partnership with Alliance Medical Ministry. Many graduates of Seed to Supper become community gardeners at Camden Street.

“It’s not enough to grow the food if you can’t provide the continuing education to go with it,” Hawkins says. Ideas for new workshops spring up all the time. Hawkins recalls a recent bountiful harvest of butternut squash. As she was handing out the vegetables, it occurred to her that although the recipients were thankful for the gift, they weren’t familiar with butternut squash. The next workshop was a hit: roasted butternut squash soup.

The Learning Garden also works closely with children. Blooming Botany is an elective offered at nearby Hunter Elementary School, in which children in grades 2 – 5 come to the garden once a week for hands-on lessons in gardening, food preparation, and nutrition. Ligon Magnet Middle School and The Exploris School also partner with the Learning Garden. Hawkins says she’s proud to be inspiring a generation of kids to have an appreciation for healthy, nourishing food and how it gets to the table.

Growing calm

Being nimble and receptive to the needs of the community is what makes the Learning Garden successful in impacting lives, Hawkins says. We “show up where people live … We’re meeting people where they’re at.” That’s often in hardship.

“It’s not even about growing the food for them. It’s … a safe space.” This
summer, a gardener’s plumbing was broken for two weeks, and Camden Street became a way to get away from the smell. Another gardener without dental insurance was unable to eat solid food and was harvesting cherry tomatoes as a solution. The staff works hard to create a safe space where an individual can take control over a small portion of a life that may be otherwise out of control.

Camden Street Learning Garden thrives, too, because it cultivates community. Working alongside the neighborhood gardeners are volunteers from local churches, schools, civic organizations, and businesses. Extensive help from other nonprofits like Alliance Medical Ministry, the Poe Center, and The Friends Committee of southeastern Raleigh provide support and help grow the garden’s learning programs.

Partnerships like those help the garden think big. Plans are in the works to build an outdoor learning kitchen – an open-air space for cooking classes, workshops, and gathering. And soon, the garden will be harvesting honey, thanks to a recent grant from the city of Raleigh to purchase beekeeping equipment. With continued support from the city, community, and a fleet of hands-on nonprofits, Hawkins says this rose from the concrete will continue to sprout new growth.