Bowen: Curbing hunger one garden plot at a time

The city of Dade City and the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Services Extension are partners on a new community garden at Watson Park in Dade City.
GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times The city of Dade City and the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Services Extension are partners on a new community garden at Watson Park in Dade City.
Published January 31 2018

Chicago native Jordan Baltus gained exposure to community gardening while living in Ashville, N.C. Pat Daly spent his summers growing tomatoes, squash and other vegetables at his former home in upstate New York. Now, they’ll be farming together as two of the initial participants in the newly opened community garden at Watson Park in Dade City.

Baltus, 22, a junior studying social work at Saint Leo University, said she will try to grow cabbage, dill, basil and maybe some carrots and broccoli. Daly, 73, a retired school teacher who moved to east Pasco after Hurricane Irene flooded his home near Schenectady, N.Y., in 2011, said he planned to raise collard greens and mustard greens, at least initially.

Both lauded the opportunity to learn and teach at the same time.

"This a great way to get people involved and learn how to help each other and teach self sustainability and how to reduce grocery bills,’’ said Baltus.

Those are some of the universal themes of community gardening. But the Watson Park effort comes with an exclusive characteristic. It is the first community garden partnership between the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Services Extension and a municipal government — in this case, Dade City.

The city provided the land, fencing, irrigation and work crews to ready the site. Plenty of volunteers helped. Businesses donated goods and in-kind services and the Extension is providing the expertise to turn the locals’ thumbs green.

"It’s easy to set one of these up, but it’s sustainability that’s key. You need an anchor for the community, a face for the community,’’ said Saqib Mukhtar, associate dean at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Services.

In this case, the faces are Eden Santiago-Gomez, community gardens program associate and her boss Whitney Elmore, director of the Extension in Pasco County. Last week, amid a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, speeches and picture-taking, Santiago-Gomez got down in the dirt and showed 25 fourth- and fifth-graders from Rodney B. Cox Elementary School how to plant seedlings of collards, kale, cauliflower and cabbage.

The children, said Dade City Mayor Camille Hernandez, are a target audience to help get families involved. The garden has 30 plots, five of which have been leased. Some are in elevated boxes so they are accessible to the disabled.

Bill Cronin, president/CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council, touted the garden to Pasco commissioners last week. Economic development and urban gardening don’t seem like a traditional paring, he admitted.

"But one of the ideas is the participants will learn how to take those crops and things they grow to market and that we create some cottage businesses," Cronin said.

In other words, economics at the micro level.

This certainly isn’t the first community garden. The city of New Port Richey has been an aggressive champion of urban agriculture, and last summer Pasco commissioners approved their own ordinance to encourage community gardens.

But that hasn’t happen yet. Elmore, the Extension director, said that is the next goal. The county wants to put a garden at its Stallings Building, just three blocks from Watson Park. Elmore said she’d like community gardens at public libraries and within residential communities.

The start in lower-income communities is intended to grow more than just plants. There will be educational sessions on horticultural skills, money management and healthy eating and cooking. The overall goal is to lower the rate of chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

There is plenty of work to be done there. State Health Department data shows nearly two-thirds of adults in Pasco County are overweight or obese, and fewer of them eat an appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables compared to the state average.

Besides the gardening enthusiasts, Watson Park last week attracted three women who jumped, stretched and sweated amid the sheltered picnic tables, completing their aerobics workout to lively Latin music. Further away, a solitary basketball player shot hoops at the courts at the park’s edge.

Seeing athletes in the park is common, but what you don’t see is easy access to food. A convenience store is not far away, but major grocers are all on the city’s southern edge — closer to Zephyrhills than to the people living near Watson Park on the city’s northwest edge.

"It’s a food desert,’’ said Elmore.

Indeed. Large portions of the county are classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as low income, low access to food. It means you’re more than a half-mile from a grocery in an urban setting and more than 10 miles away in a rural area.

Feeding America estimates nearly 68,000 people in Pasco County are considered food insecure with limited or uncertain access to an adequate amount of food. That means people are at risk of going hungry.

Curbing hunger. Could there be any better reason to start community gardening?

Reach C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813)435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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