ATLANTIC CITY — Marla Scheffler munched on a piece of arugula on a recent Friday, enjoying the product of her care and patience: a vibrant vegetable garden, in the middle of the city, just around the corner from her home.
“If I’m feeling tired and beat up — because I do a lot of physical work as a stagehand — I can come over here and get a handful of parsley and greens, and by the time I get to work and I eat them, I have energy,” said Scheffler, 53, who lives in the South Inlet section of the city and works in the resort and Philadelphia.
Scheffler comes from a family of farmers, and plants everything from cucumbers and sunflowers to squash, kale and potatoes in her plot at the Absecon Lighthouse on Rhode Island Avenue. She’s tended her plot, and the plots of friends, since the garden opened.
The Absecon Lighthouse Community Garden is one of 12 in the AtlantiCare Healthy Garden Network, along with gardens maintained by the Salvation Army on Texas Avenue, the Venice Park Civic Association and Hamilton United Methodist Church on Arctic Avenue. All of them are different, said Laura Engelmann, AtlantiCare’s Community Health and Wellness Manager, who runs the program.
Some are rental boxes, some are open for the community — a “pull a weed, take a tomato” garden, Engelmann said — and some feed into social services, such as the one at the Salvation Army.
All of them fill a critical need for cheap, fresh produce in a city labeled a “food desert” with no major supermarket at the moment (a $13.5 million ShopRite is planned near Baltic and Indiana avenues) and a poverty rate that hovers around 40%.
Though not a definitive answer to a lack of fresh food in an urban environment, gardening can work as a stopgap measure that comes with ancillary benefits including improved mental health, neighborhood beautification and social cohesion.
“There’s lots of different answers, different ways to combat food insecurity,” Engelmann said, “and gardening is one of those.”
For Scheffler, the rental box provides an alternative means of getting fresh produce. To get to a full-service grocery store, she has to leave the city. And although she found a great market for vegetables — Boom Food Market on Ventnor Avenue — her garden is only a short walk from her home.
“This makes it so much better,” Scheffler said.
The program was started with a $50,000 donation from the Dave Matthews Band in 2011 when they came to the city for a show. AtlantiCare matched the band’s original contribution, and donations from other visiting acts and residents have sustained the program since then.
The Salvation Army has seen volunteers from AtlantiCare show up at the beginning of the growing season to set up their garden, and at the end of the season to clean it out and ready it for the following year, said Captain Frank Picciotto.
The peppers, cabbage and tomatoes they grow show up in the soup kitchen’s meals and the food pantry’s shelves. Picciotto sees it as a huge benefit for the city’s low-income residents who might be used to cheaper food with higher calorie counts.
They’ve also planted flowers among their vegetables and roses out front on the street, Picciotto said.
“Sometimes people pick the roses,” Picciotto said, laughing. “I know it’s a weird thing, but at least they use them for something good, right?”
That “something good” might be their mental well-being.
University of Pennsylvania researchers in 2018 released a study that analyzed the “greening” of vacant lots in Philadelphia — including removal of trash, planting of grass and trees and monthly maintenance — and how it impacted the mental health of those who live near them. They found a 68% decrease in depression among participants living in neighborhoods below the poverty line.
The article, “Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community-Dwelling Adults,” cited several other studies showing a relationship between lower rates of depression and time spent in green areas.
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“Therefore, green space may be a potential buffer between inequitable neighborhood conditions and poor mental health outcomes,” the researchers wrote.
For Jean Muchanic, executive director of the Absecon Lighthouse, the garden has been a welcome presence. The lighthouse hosts talks on nutrition, Muchanic said, and the garden exposes the lighthouse’s 26,000 yearly visitors to the benefits of growing your own food.
“It is important that people realize how important getting close to nature and sourcing some food right in your own neighborhood is,” Muchanic said.
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That’s a lesson Scheffler has carried with her since childhood. She raised her kids mostly vegetarian, and used to take them to her garden in Pleasantville. She found the kids immediately took to it, getting dirty and playing with the greens.
Sometimes, Scheffler will go weeks without visiting her garden. Sometimes, she’s there every day, her hands in the dirt, pulling weeds, checking in on her seedlings. Crouched down on the edge of one of the plots she tends, Scheffler observed her herbs, including dill, peppermint, cilantro and basil.
“Rosemary looks really happy,” she said, noting its growth.
She finds meaning in eating food taken directly from the earth.
“It’s really important that people grow their own food again. They’ve kind of stopped, and they don’t really understand,” Scheffler said. “It’s not just at the grocery store. There’s a whole line of people that bring that food there, and a whole lot of care.”