Camden County is now providing healthy food to some animals at the Philadelphia Zoo, officials announced.
The Freeholder Board’s Office of Sustainability, which runs the community garden at the Camden County Environmental Campus at Lakeland, has partnered with the zoo to supplement its animal nutrition program. The program aims to source food locally as part of its sustainability efforts.
“We are proud to partner with Philadelphia Zoo and assist in providing healthy locally-sourced greens for their herbivorous reptiles, birds, apes and monkeys,” Freeholder Jonathan Young, liaison to the Office of Sustainability, said. “We provide the Zoo with a variety of green leafy vegetables. Fresh produce is a main component of the diets of many zoo animals.”
The Office of Sustainability, with support from the Rutgers-Camden Master Gardeners program and community volunteers, has developed a hydroponic greenhouse as a component of their community garden. At the location, they grow a variety of vegetables, herbs and over 20 varieties of lettuces in five different types of hydroponic systems.
“The greenhouse is not only being used to grow healthy food year-round, it also serves as a demonstration site for others to learn how to effectively grow produce hydroponically,” Young said. “The revenue we generate from our partnership with Philadelphia Zoo goes to offset the costs of growing, creating a cost-neutral program for the county with many numerous benefits.”
The greenhouse was established last winter. Since then, the team of staff and volunteers has installed five types of hydroponic systems including ebb and flow, NFT (nutrient film technique), Dutch bucket (vertical), floating systems and an aeroponics system.
Hydroponics is a soil less approach to gardening that has been utilized for thousands of years. Hydroponic gardening tends to produce larger plants and higher yields due to the nutrient rich solution delivered directly to the plant root system. This makes for easier access to nutrients compared to traditional soil gardening in which the plants need to search for nutrients. Furthermore, the reuse of the nutrient solution utilizes less water than conventional gardening.
“What’s unique about our program is that when it’s cold and no one is growing outside, our production is at its peak inside our temperature-controlled greenhouse,” Young said. “At any given time, we are growing up to 800 heads of lettuce, as well as beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and more. We are also a resource for schools, businesses, non-profits, and county residents looking to learn more about these techniques.”
Through this agreement, the Philadelphia Zoo will be able to buy lettuce for about 50 cents a head to cover some of the operating costs of the greenhouse and make it possible for the community garden to donate food to community organizations. Officials said great care is taken to ensure animals at the zoo receive wholesome foods that are sustainably and humanely sourced.
“We are happy to partner with The Freeholder Board’s Office of Sustainability and the community garden at the Camden County Environmental Campus to supplement our nutrition program at the Philadelphia Zoo,” Philadelphia Zoo Nutrition Program Director Barbara Toddes said. “This partnership enables the Zoo to purchase fresh, local greens for our animals.”
The Philadelphia Zoo is just one of the local partners participating in the program. Camden County Senior Services, Cathedral Kitchen and the Neighborhood Center in Camden, all of which serve at-risk populations, benefit from the greenhouse.
Ultimately, the project’s mission is to create a place to produce locally-grown vegetables in an environment where food safety, nutrition and water conservation are key principles to combating food deserts in low-income urban areas.
Camden County has received a grant from Rutgers University to help feed those in need of fresh produce. In 2018, over 500 pounds of produce were donated to partner organizations.
The Camden County hydroponic greenhouse is located at 508 Lakeland Road in Gloucester Township. The Camden County Environmental Campus is the newest addition to the Camden County Park System has transformed an eight-acre site at the Lakeland Complex in the Blackwood neighborhood into a hub for community gardening and environmental education.
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