1. Opinion

School yard gardens in St. Petersburg are only the beginning

A former environmental sciences professor at Eckerd College is making a difference in the lives of scores of south Pinellas County children, one garden at a time.

Kip Curtis is the founder and executive director of the Edible Peace Patch — a nonprofit project that is in four schools in the Sunshine City.

The goal is simple: "Build gardens. Feed bodies. Expand minds. Grow community."

Since 2009, gardens have taken root at Campbell Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Sanderlin IB elementary — Title 1 schools where the majority of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Curtis plans to build four more: two at elementary schools, and two at middle schools.

"We've created a 14-week program where we put volunteers in the classroom with the same kids for the semester," he said.

Since moving to the city in 2006, Curtis said, he has been struck by the area's poverty issues that overlap with race: About 70 percent of the African-American males don't graduate from high school.

Curtis has made a connection of creating the gardens while adding a mentoring component to encourage kids to stay in school.

"We've seen the scores go up in science, math and reading at some of the schools,'' he said. "Ultimately we're about helping children learn.''

The program combines environmental and social issues — and attempts to reduce dropout rates and the impacts of poverty.

Curtis has a lofty goal of taking the project to all Title 1 schools south of Central Avenue. But he also envisions taking this project beyond the schoolyards.

Curtis' plan, if successful, will put the Sunshine City on the national map for taking innovative steps that target educating children in poor communities while enhancing the quality of food sources to the broader community.

That plan calls for the purchase of a 15-acre tract at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 32nd Avenue S to establish a sustainable urban farm project.

The land, which is a stone's throw from Lake Maggiore, was cleared years ago with plans for low-income apartments, but those plans fell through.

Now the Edible Peace Patch wants to covert that land into an urban farm.

The project is garnering attention from local and national investors. The nonprofit is creating a Founders Fund to raise the money to put the whole vision together.

The expansive grounds will feature an apiary (for honey), in-ground water storage, student/faculty housing, an education center and kitchen and shade house.

In the meantime, Curtis and his charges are gearing up for Farmraiser 2013, which is set for Oct. 27 at the plaza at the Mahaffey Theater.

At this event, Tyson Grant, executive chef at Parkshore Grill, will create a menu of tapas using the produce grown in school gardens — just like many farm-to-plate concepts that have sprouted in larger communities across the country.

Meanwhile, Curtis continues to raise money and awareness about the success of the projects.

The Tampa Bay Rays Foundation provided a grant. So did the Tampa Jaycees.

Just as in the schoolyard gardens, the group is organically growing support throughout the broader community.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at or at (727) 893-8874 and on Twitter at @StPeteSandi.