Nutrition and Community: The Keys to Health in Camden

By Sneha Modi, University of Notre Dame (2016)

I had the opportunity last summer to intern with The Food Trust, a non-profit that addresses nutrition and food access in the greater Philadelphia area. My work focused in Camden, NJ, just across the river from Philadelphia, but a completely different environment. Camden faces numerous issues of poverty on the spectrum from violence to childhood obesity. My organization, The Food Trust, is one of a number of non-profits, community leaders, and private companies that have partnered together to create a healthier Camden. This initiative, known as Campbell’s Healthy Communities, is led by Campbell’s Soup Company, headquartered in Camden. The initiative aims to reduce childhood obesity and increase access to healthy, nutritious food in Camden by providing funding over a 10-year period to organizations such as The Food Bank and The Food Trust.

Sneha is a Science PreProfessional Major and a Poverty Studies Minor at Notre Dame. She is interested in serving poverty-stricken communities through medicine.

Sneha is a Science PreProfessional Major and a Poverty Studies Minor at Notre Dame. She is interested in serving poverty-stricken communities through medicine.


Camden is often called a “food desert,” which usually refers to an area having little access to a grocery store or a place to buy food. This term does not reveal that Camden has numerous small convenience stores or corner stores in every neighborhood. The Food Trust refers to Camden as more of a “food swamp” because while there are many accessible and affordable places to buy food, most of the food is extremely unhealthy. On the other hand, healthy food, such as produce or low-fat options, are extremely hard to come by, and if they are available, they are often much more expensive than the unhealthy options. The Food Trust’s primary contributions to the Campbell’s initiative include nutrition education in elementary and middle school classrooms in Camden as well as establishing and expanding a Healthy Cornerstore Initiative in the Camden area. This initiative, first started in Philadelphia, aims to bring healthy, affordable options to local corner stores, which primarily stock fried foods, sodas, chips, and other processed foods. Corner stores are at the heart of Camden communities. They are owned and run by locals and provide the neighborhoods with most, if not all, of their food. Furthermore, corner stores are frequented by children on their way to and from school. By addressing nutrition in alternative corner stores, The Food Trust reaches many members of the community.

My position during the summer was “Community Outreach and Education Specialist,” which meant working primarily in schools or with youth leadership groups promoting healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. In June, I participated in nutrition education in elementary and middle school classrooms. We taught classes about specific topics in nutrition and prepared a healthy recipe with the kids in the classroom. Parents were invited to these sessions and were encouraged to prepare these recipes at home and work with their children to establish healthier lifestyles. I soon realized that many parents did not realize their children would eat fruits and vegetables, so had never bothered incorporating them into their diets. Parents were often unaware of the nutritional needs of their children. Seeing their children enjoy new foods encouraged them to bring more of these foods into their homes. Inviting parents to these nutrition lessons incorporated them into a community effort, as parents are the ones who usually make decisions in the household. Even if the parents did not show up, which was frequently, the children were empowered to teach their parents what they had learned and to prepare the recipes at home.

We also worked with youth leadership groups in middle schools, known as HYPE (Healthy You, Positive Energy) crews. During the school year, small groups of students had worked closely with members of The Food Trust and learned about nutrition and healthy lifestyles. At the end of the year, they presented what they had learned to the rest of their school at an assembly on nutrition and physical activity. These groups allowed the kids to be leaders within their own school and teach others. Learning from peers can be more persuasive than being taught by strangers or authority figures. Using these HYPE crews for middle school students to educate their own peers enabled more children understand the message of The Food Trust.

CFET (the Center For Environmental Transformation) another non-profit organization in Camden, focuses on urban gardening and youth leadership. High school students from the Camden area work at CFET as Eco-Interns, and take responsibility for weeding, planting, and other aspects of gardening. They hold weekly farmer’s markets and sell their produce to the community, which allows them to bring healthier options to their neighborhood. Seeing these kids in their neighborhoods helped me understand how different their upbringing was from my experience. We were also able to speak with community members, who were enthusiastic about being able to purchase fresh produce in their vicinity.

In July, we prepared a nutrition education curriculum and worked with a youth leadership group at Hopeworks N’ Camden, a non-profit based in Camden focused on 14-23 year olds. Hopeworks provides training in website design, GIS, and Salesforce in order to help youth find a pathway to their future. Hopeworks offers a six-week summer program for high school students to build leadership. The Health Advocacy group, which I worked with, learned basic nutrition and discussed how to adjust diet and lifestyles.  The group also discussed leadership to create a healthier Camden. Some of the young people in the group hoped to be cooks or bakers and others were very interested in health. They all hoped to be healthier but some expressed how their families made unhealthy decisions, so it was hard for them to eat healthy at home. Learning about the factors that prevent healthy eating was eye opening. Lack of access to healthy food is compounded by pressure from family and friends, a lack of time and convenience, and little knowledge about the harm of unhealthy food.

The high school students from Hopeworks offered free taste tests of their healthy recipes at a local community concession stand which was open during Little League practices and games. The owners of the concession stand partnered with The Food Trust to incorporate healthier options into their menu. The Hopeworks students and the Food Trust introduced local kids to banana pops (a healthier alternative to ice cream), fruit-infused water, healthier versions of popcorn, and fruit smoothies. These recipes were a hit and the Little League members were even able to explain the benefits of these snacks after the Hopeworks students gave their lessons. The Hopeworks group gained valuable experience in public speaking and teaching nutrition. The owners of the concession stand were impressed with the recipes we sampled and are hoping to start incorporating them into their regular menu.

Working with the Camden community helped me realize that health truly begins at home. With the right knowledge, resources, and support, it is easy to be healthy, but healthy eating is often a challenge for impoverished neighborhoods. The youth of Camden have not received the knowledge for healthy lifestyle choices. Even if they had the knowledge, they do not have the resources or support to sustain healthier lifestyles. Camden, with only one grocery store at the edge of town, and hundreds of corner stores, does not encourage healthy decisions.  In some areas, violence discourages outdoor exercise, further perpetuating unhealthy lifestyles. Furthermore, the families are not always involved in the lives of their children or lack awareness of health risks. Without the support of family or friends, their motivation to be healthy is difficulty to sustain.  It should not surprise us that patients coming from these neighborhoods come to clinics suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, which are preventable with the right knowledge and resources. Focusing on nutrition showed me another side of the health and poverty issue.

Working with The Food Trust helped me realize the importance of a community-based approach to issues of poverty. The Food Trust does a great job involving many members of the community: schools, teachers, and other non-profit organizations. Furthermore, Campbell’s Healthy Communities initiative involves private companies to address all aspects of food access and nutrition. This type of partnership between private and non-profit organizations allows for better-funded, well-rounded programming that can achieve much more than a single organization.

Nutrition education on its own would not be enough to improve the health of Camden because healthy foods are not easily accessible. With different organizations concentrating on food access and others focusing on nutrition education, I believe that this initiative will be able to achieve many of its goals within the 10-year timeline.

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