Green dreams

click to enlarge Dr. Kip Curtis. - Linda Saul-Sena
Linda Saul-Sena
Dr. Kip Curtis.

Finally, our community is making the critical connections between kids, gardens, health, jobs and green spaces. The Edible Peace Patch Project in St Pete has come up with a brilliant template for tying these issues together. Their motto summarizes their strategy:
“Build Gardens. Feed Bodies. Expand Minds. Grow Community.”

The project was the brainchild of Dr. Kip Curtis, an Eckerd College professor who moved here in 2006 to teach environmental studies and sustainability. Kip noted the area’s low graduation rates and large “food deserts,” parts of town where fresh fruits and vegetables are tough to come by. He felt that these factors, byproducts of poverty and racism, combined to produce poor diets and limited opportunities.

Fortunately, Curtis was born on a farm and knew how to grow plants. In 2009, he launched the first Edible Peace Patch Project as an experiment in urban, sustainable farming at Lakewood Elementary School. Curtis’s college students came to the school and mentored the students, and at year’s end over 200 parents attended a harvest festival themed “Learning Well, Eating Well.”

Curtis explained that schoolyard gardens “primed the pump by creating a demand for good food.” When children grew the squash, lettuce or radishes themselves, they were much more open to eating them enthusiastically. The Edible Peace Patch website shows elementary students brimming with enthusiasm about their farming successes, raising over 50 different crops.

Seven schools, all serving needy children in South St. Pete, have benefited from gardens in the last several years. Community partners ranging from the Rays to the Jaycees have helped the gardens get off the ground. Fairmont Elementary boasts a garden in the shape of a peace sign. “We should have this program in every school,” enthused Saturday Morning Market Director Gail Eggeman.

New farming techniques have been used to produce even better results. Sanderlin Elementary created a raised bed garden filled with debris and fish remains to create compost. The John Hopkins Middle School effort tried deep trench compost to enrich the sandy soil. The students receive a science eduation without knowing it, and their test scores reflect this new knowlege.

The stated mission of the Edible Peace Patch is to eliminate poverty as a factor in educational success and diet-related health issues. The interconnection of these two lofty goals is central to the project’s success, but so is leadership. An acclaimed community activist just took the reins of the group this April.

Sandra Gadsden is uniquely qualified to serve as Peace Patch executive director, having developed a vast network of friends from her 10 years as an editor for the Tampa Bay Times. She brings a variety of collaborators to the table: donors, artists, journalists, activists. Already she has been rounding up support and strategizing partners for the project.

The group’s goal is brilliant, a farm-to-school-table initiative. The Edible Peace Project wants to provide 5,000 lunches created with healthy food, raised on a sustainable farm to be located in South St. Pete. The meals will be prepared in the neighborhood, thus creating a circle of “food literacy” and employment for the area. Rather than bulk purchases from non-healthy sources, the students would enjoy healthy, locally produced food that they have had a hand in raising.

Best of all, the farming and food prep and delivery would employ local residents. The students would experience on a very practical level food production and grass-roots capitalism.

So where will the investment come from to underwrite this dream? Local donors, the Founders, are being sought to make this a reality. So far, 16 generous souls have each given $5,000 toward a goal of $100,000.

Dr. Curtis has moved ahead to create a regional series of food literacy projects, leaving Eckerd College for USF St. Pete and establishing a new initiative entitled The Edible Education Project. His collaboration in Temple Terrace with Greco Middle School connects the dots. The school has a commercial kitchen to teach food preparation, garden plots in the adjacent community garden, and even chickens and goats. He is also working with the Kinship Urban Farm in New Port Richey and running for the Pinellas County School Board.

Curtis is optimistic about the creation of a food culture in Tampa Bay in which urban sustainable gardens change the social infrastructure. “We can grow our way out of our current predicament,” he predicts. Certainly these fresh tendrils of civic activism bode well for both our schools and our neighborhoods. 

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