Resilient Roots of Camden community- Highlight on BIttermelon
Vines stretched along the trellis, wrapping its arms around the bamboo, hugging it like a long lost friend. Bittermelon, winter squash, and gourds hang below, teasing Vietnamese, Cambodian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican neighbors as they walk by, often knocking people in the heads and acting as teleportation talismans to their homelands. As one person commented, “I remember in Puerto Rico when we’d see them growing wild and we’d pick them and eat the sweet seeds inside like candy”. Another passerby yells, “Give me all your bittermelon today!” “I’m going to make bittermelon stuffed with pork tonight for my family. I usually stop by the garden and buy everything I can before going to the supermarket. I come to support the community.”
Bittermelon is in the squash family, often seen as the akward bumpy and cringe-worthy sibling. However, this friend is beloved in the communities that know it well–eaten often in Asian communities and originating in Africa. It makes an unapologetic and unforgetable first impression. It’s complicated taste personality makes it a special food that cravings can only be satisfied by it alone (unlike other taste profiles that can be substituted by another food). It’s superpowers include supporting blood health especially those who have diabetes.
During the summer from July to August, the garden is a site of a High school Food Justice internship and Children’s summer camp. 12 high school students intern to take care of the garden and be trained as food justice leaders in the Camden community. As one intern commented about the garden, “it is a strong group that can make the community a better and safer place.” The garden was a safe space for those who participated to enact in physical activity through weeding, walking, digging, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying heavy loads, and running. Having community control and access to green space for the community to interact while reconnecting to land can be a powerful way for our community to feel control over their lives and health. It can be a first step in meeting basic safety needs in order for our community to imagine and work towards larger scale healthy community infrastructure. As another student commented, “I liked the whole program, not one day I felt like I didn’t want to come but If I had to choose I would say to keep doing the garden/ Market. I never seen anyone sell Healthy foods for the community till I came here.”
Indeed, the market was a hit this summer as it averaged about 20 customers per market. Bittermelon sold out the fastest, following okra, tomatoes, and hot peppers. Often, there is a stereotype that people don’t like vegetables. What we’ve found, is if we consistently show up, grow what the community wants seriously like food architects, articulate that the markets represents a bigger goal of community power/health, and of course, smile 🙂 ; our community will defy these dominant narratives and supports the market for their own health.
Our students presented at a BBQ community forum their work this summer which included a video capturing the voices of community members. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/lsTBUZpD91k
This is the first of blogs that will highlight one of our vegetables. Let us know if there is one that you’d like to hear more about in the future!
About the Grantee
VietLead is a grassroots organization that strives to improve health, increase sovereignty, and develop Vietnamese leadership in solidarity through intergenerational farming; youth leadership; health navigation; policy advocacy; and civic engagement. Our Food Sovereignty and community garden program was built from seeing how food is an important part of how refugees practice self-determination.
Cohort: South 2
Funder: New Jersey Department of Health