A few years ago, Ryan Iacovacci moved to Sulphur Springs, a neighborhood with a reputation for drugs and crime, and he vowed to change it. ¶ He was an idealistic, radical University of South Florida student who believed in grass roots advocacy. ¶ For him and many others, such advocacy comes not by way of marches or protest but through something everyone loves: Food. ¶ Iacovacci is the founder of the Birdhouse Buying Club, where members pool their money to buy organic or local produce that's unavailable or too expensive at grocery stores. Right now, the club is made up of about 40 of Iacovacci's friends and acquaintances but, in time, he hopes to expand it into Sulphur Springs and transform the neighborhood.
He wants to change Sulphur Springs' nutritional habits, create jobs, stop kids from selling drugs and empower them to turn wasted neighborhood oranges, kumquats and mulberries into money.
"We are working to build a sovereign food system that has the strength to resist economic shocks and make more affordable local fresh food," he pledges.
The club recently received the first $1,000 microgrant from Awesome Tampa Bay, a local group of prominent businesses and organizations that fund clever and simple ways to solve community problems.
But Iacovacci's vision is not unique. Buying clubs have existed for decades, often formed with similar idealistic motives.
Some, such as Amy's Fresh Delivery, started by a University of Tampa graduate, formed to provide people with the freshest fruits and vegetables from local farms. It serves Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Other clubs work similarly but on smaller scales, like the Modern Organics Buying Club in Westchase.
Some farms sell their produce in a similar fashion, boxing up bundles of vegetables for pickup or delivery. Lithia's Lancaster's Hydro Farm, Tampa's Sweetwater Organic Community Farm and Mother Earth's Urban Farm are among them.
Other buying clubs have clear philanthropic missions such as the Share Florida Food Network of Tampa. Run by Cornerstone Family Ministries, the nonprofit group acquired food at discounted rates from large suppliers and sold it to churches who distributed it to low-income families.
But in December 2010, Cornerstone's board of directors closed the nonprofit, concluding that people had the same buying power and food prices through Sam's Club, Walmart and other retailers.
The move allowed Cornerstone to focus on more successful charitable ventures. But one benefit of the food-buying program was lost, executive director Cathy Capo-Stone said. The organization had underestimated how the food pickups served as touch points to dole out information.
"The thing it does do is provide a connection to the poor to other services," Stone said. "When you think of food, it's a welcoming connection point for people. I mean you have to have food. The real power is what happens around that meal."
The Birdhouse Buying Club's aim falls somewhere between organic food-buying clubs and the Share Florida Food Network.
Iacovacci got involved with buying clubs after moving to Sulphur Springs and working with Annie's Organic Buying Club, a nationwide network that promotes fresh, organic food and farming.
He then worked for the YMCA after-school and childhood obesity prevention programs. Among his duties was going door-to-door for a survey asking Sulphur Springs families where they got their food and exercise. Fast food was an answer that troubled him.
The culmination of all these experiences led him to create the Birdhouse club. Though Iacovacci wants to promote and support local and sustainable farming and healthful food choices, he knows many Sulphur Springs residents will only buy into the club if it's affordable — not because of strong environmental beliefs.
"It's not about organic, it's not about saving the world," Iacovacci, 25, said. "If I could save money or it's fresh or tastes better, that's what it's about."
After launching the club last year, he realized his prices were too high, and he's currently refining the club, developing a better business plan, which he hopes will include payment through food stamps or electronic benefit transfers.
"I really haven't pushed it out in the neighborhood," he said, adding that he's waiting to make sure everything is "legit."
Once Iacovacci starts selling to Sulphur Springs residents, his next goal is to open a neighborhood storefront grocery cooperative with paid employees selling the produce daily.
For now, Iacovacci goes through the Suncoast Food Alliance to get local produce. He tells customers what's available on the buying club's website, where they can pay. The produce is delivered every Sunday to the Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights, where Iacovacci works as a bartender. Customers pay between $26 and $41 and pick up their orders there.
His ideas to transform Sulphur Springs are shaped with the help of Jay Washington, 40, a longtime neighborhood resident. Once homeless and a cocaine addict, Washington is now a volunteer of several organizations and a peer educator with the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office or DACCO. Washington, who is enrolled at the Springfield College School of Human Services and focusing on addiction studies, met Iocavacci through an acquaintance.
He visited Iacovacci's house where backyard chickens provide fresh eggs and began to subscribe to Iacovacci's food vision.
"From that day forth," Washington said, "we just started clicking."
Washington became administrator of Harvest in tha Hood, a program also in the works that's tied to the Birdhouse Buying Club. Harvest in tha Hood aims to employ Sulphur Springs teens to pick fruit from neighborhood fruit trees and bushes — seeking permission first when possible — and selling the harvest to area restaurants and the Birdhouse Buying Club. The endeavor started after Iacovacci and Jo'Marcus Harris, 18, a neighbor, were juicing fruit they had picked when Harris joked that they could make money doing it, noting the number of foreclosed and abandoned properties in the neighborhood.
Iacovacci had an idea. They grabbed a blanket, found a forsaken mulberry tree and shook down its fruit. Iacovacci called Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe — a Seminole Heights restaurant — and asked if they were interested in the fruit. A chef was and Harris rode over and sold the mulberries for about $20.
At that moment, Harris saw the money-making possibilities for himself and other Sulphur Springs teens, and he signed on to be part of Harvest in tha Hood. Like Iacovacci, he dreams of a day when teens peddle fruit around Sulphur Springs instead of drugs.
"There's a better way," Washington said.
"The other way," added Harris, "the different way."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]