Recently, the popularity of organic, locally grown and sustainable foods has many USF students wondering where the food they eat comes from.
According to the USDA, organic food sales nationwide have increased by 20 percent since 1990. Chains such as Publix and Walmart are selling organic items, and produce stands touting sustainable farmed crops are sprouting up all over Tampa.
This isn’t an accident; the USDA cited that people with a secondary education sought out and bought more organic foods than those without a college degree, which makes the Tampa area prime real estate for health-conscious consumers.
All of this demand comes with a price tag. Traditionally, locally grown products are more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts, which has prompted the habitually broke college student to seek out other, more reasonably priced sources.
Some students buy their organic foods from big chain supermarkets but more commonly popular, and cheaper avenues for local produce are the community gardens that surround USF.
The coffee shop Felicitous has had a community garden for two and a half years. Started by a former employee, the garden consists of six moderately sized planters filled with everything from carrots to chamomile.
“Initially, we were only planting herbs,” longtime employee and USF student Andrew Sestok said. “Now we have carrots, broccoli, kale, mustard greens, lettuce, and we could eat all of this now.”
Having no experience other than gardening, Sestok and his co-workers tried their hand at creating an inexpensive and productive garden for anyone to benefit from.
“I’d like to implement a portion of the plants into our food, and I would also like to advocate that people come and just take some,” Sestok said.
The garden is built from scrap wood and old pallets. Because the wood is not treated with the chemicals that prevent weather damage, eventually it will rot and an overhaul will be necessary, but Sestok thinks it is the only way to ensure no undesired chemicals affect the consumer.
“Someone that is really interested in organic and homegrown (food) is typically intolerant of even the slightest contingency, so there are patrons and friends that would not accept it if we did not take such precautions as we do,” Sestok said.
For four years, Kitty Wallace has been the coordinator for the Tampa Heights Community Garden, just south of Hillsborough Avenue, about 10 miles from the USF Tampa campus.
In her work cultivating gardens with a diverse group of people, she has found that organic farming is important for many because of the growing interest people have in their food, from what chemicals are involved in its cultivation to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“I think the GMO issue has really kicked concern (into) action for people wanting to be sure their food is grown from seeds that haven’t been affected by genetic modification,” Wallace said. “People are very concerned about some of the effects that we are seeing now in pesticides and herbicides.”
Wallace connects this with the fact that many patrons of the Tampa Heights Community Garden are just starting to have children. Many don’t want to take chances with GMOs and would rather eat local instead.
“We have a lot of young families,” Wallace said. “This past year we had four babies born in the families of the garden. We have almost 200 people gardening with us right now.”
As environmentally conscious students settle down and begin having families, instilling in their children a passion for locally grown foods becomes important. Christopher Hawthorne, 26, education program director at Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, is charged with teaching them.
“I started as a part-time farmer and I was interested in starting field trips,” Hawthorne said. “In the following season our education program manager ended up moving away and recommending me to take her spot, so I now manage the field trip program as well as the summer farm camp.”
Hawthorne seeks to give children more knowledge surrounding responsible farming practices, like companion planting versus the use of chemical pesticides.
“We’re also interested in teaching kids about wild edible plants and exposing them to what’s in the Florida environment, and it’s a real delight to show kids that you can eat a flower or something you think of as just a weed. It really opens their minds to the experience of food beyond just going to the grocery store.”
With the more and more produce stands popping up all around Tampa, local gardens seem like they are here to stay. If one has not experienced growing and eating food from scratch, the process of paying for a plot of dirt may seem absurd, but one common thread seems to persist: local gardens effectively foster the sense of community their name promises.
“Many of the gardeners have joined the garden because they like the idea of being able to garden with others. … You get to know the gardener that is next to you and people come together,” Wallace said. “There is a lot of community spirit that is developed through the garden.”