ST. PETERSBURG — Two teenage girls dragged a wheelbarrow past a sweet potato patch along the side of a greenhouse. Others bent along the long rows of garden beds, tending to peppers, okra and mustard greens. At the far end of the lot, a group of young men poured buckets of rotting food onto a compost pile, joking as they smashed the remains with shovels.
Hand-painted signs throughout the greenery spelled out their mission:
“Give not take.”
“Food for all.”
On a sunny Friday afternoon at the St. Pete Youth Farm, these employees were hard at work. From 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. every Monday through Friday, student workers flock to the lot at 1664 12th St. S to help hundreds of plants thrive.
The literal fruits of their labor — plus root veggies, herbs, tilapia and more — are given back to the community in a pay-what-you-can model designed to battle food insecurity in the area.
“If you need it, we provide it,” said collaboration manager Carla Bristol.
Bristol, 53, is the adult who champions the youths who work at the farm. She is clear that this initiative is shaped by the student employees. The farm is staffed by high schoolers, who are each paid $12 an hour. To become an employee, students must live within the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which runs from approximately Fourth Street to 49th Street and Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S.
“They leave feeling more confident, with public speaking [and] presentation skills, greater exposure to politics [and] a greater sense of community,” Bristol said.
The farm has been in the works since 2019, when the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg teamed up with the City of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County Schools, the Pinellas Education Foundation and other community partners. Bristol was hired then, as well as 15 youths who participated in a pilot version of the farm.
The pandemic slowed things down and the site of the farm changed. By June of this year the greenhouse, supported by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and funded in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation, was finally installed in the permanent location behind the Enoch Davis Center in Midtown.
Initial funding came from City of St. Petersburg and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, which provided a grant of over $200,000. The city takes care of water and owns the land. The program remains funded by the city, as well as private contributions and grants.
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Currently about 20 youths work on the farm, tending to a wide variety of plants. Sage, thyme and Cuban oregano fill the herb garden outside. Inside the greenhouse, stalks of lettuce peek out of floating grow beds and 40 red and blue tilapia swim inside two 250-gallon tanks.
“We’re growing above beds. We’re growing in bags, we’re growing on water,” Bristol said. “That’s what our young people are becoming exposed to, so no matter where in the world they go, they will know how to compost ... how to grow food and harvest, and how to take the seeds and dry them and create more food.”
They aren’t just growing plants to nourish the community. Bristol hopes the youths themselves are growing, too.
She has created traditions like Mental Health Mondays and “mindful movement” yoga sessions on Fridays. A regular flow of speakers visits the farm, teaching financial literacy and recipes, as well as the health benefits of various ingredients.
“We have cranberry hibiscus leaves and we actually just made some tea together,” said Shy Dallas, a 14-year-old Boca Ciega High freshman who started as an employee about a month ago. “It’s fruity, but sour. Hibiscus can help with many things, like if you’re cramping or sick.”
Bristol greets each employee with a hug, and texts words of encouragement during the week. Publicly she refers to them as youth ambassadors, but around the farm she also calls them “my little angels.” Many of them call her ma. It’s not uncommon for past students to return to the farm to volunteer.
“They’re working in an environment where they’re paid, but where their employer cares about their development,” she said. “In order for them to provide to the community, we have to pour into them.”
The spirit of sharing is found throughout the farm. Many pieces came from the community, like wood sourced from the recreation center and palettes repurposed from local home construction projects. The Morean Center for Clay donated hundreds of multicolored clay totem pieces that decorate the farm. Volunteers from the mobile NOMAD art bus visited the farm and worked with the students to paint signs that decorate the garden beds.
Kiandrae Pittman, 16, said food donations from local churches and businesses are used in the compost area.
“Instead of putting it to waste, we can use it here,” he said. “I get to learn new things every day.”
The support from other locals also puts the students in a position to give back. The youth farm packs bags of supplies for local homeless people. When Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida, the youth farm pivoted to filling bags for marginalized communities in Fort Myers, like Harlem Heights and Dunbar. Each bag included encouraging messages for the recipient.
“I want to do things to help the community,” Dallas said.
Many new projects are in the works here. To celebrate the upcoming tilapia harvest in December, the farm will welcome the community to visit for a fish dinner. The farm has hosted a number of community events, from the first night of Kwanzaa to Earth Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Employees are currently gearing up for Farm-O-Ween, which will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct 29. The free event is open to the public and will include a costume contest, scavenger hunt, candy and music.
The students have also started to distribute 500 mini-gardens to the community. These 12-inch square boxes each include four plants (okra, pigeon pea, Cuban oregano and cranberry hibiscus).
Since no one lives at the farm, an ordinance prevents them from installing chicken coops on the premises. While Bristol hopes to change the rule, a $15,000 grant from the Root Family Foundation has allowed the farm to launch a community chicken coop project, where they will “provide the chickens, coop, feed, and all necessary supplies to any interested neighbor.” In return, the farm hopes to get some leftover eggs back.
Bristol is excited to install sidewalk community gardens soon, which will add vibrancy to the neighborhood as well as easy access to nutritious food. She has dreams of building a clay oven on the property that folks in the area can use as a community grill. She imagines it being a resource for locals when the power goes out during future storms, but also is excited to teach people how to make one-pot meals and host monthly community soup gatherings made with farm-grown root veggies.
“The way this community was designed forever ago was that the doctors and lawyers lived next to the housekeepers. ... Everybody lived together in one community,” she said. “So all we’re trying to do is return to a similar model where there is true equity, not just a buzzword.”
A critical part of the plan is to ensure the farm can sustain itself for years to come.
“I would like this to remain a community asset,” Bristol said. “That would be extremely important to me, that it remains as a growing community asset that our teens are bringing their kids to.”
How to get involved
Volunteers can help tend to the farm during Community Workday events, which occur on the last Saturday of each month. Bristol welcomes corporate groups to schedule team-building volunteer days. Call her at 727-565-3930 to coordinate.
She is also accepting donations of Halloween decorations for future Farm-O-Ween events. To learn more about the St. Pete Youth Farm and to sign up for their newsletter, visit stpeteyouthfarm.org.