Robin Clemmons was used to driving around the county, picking up hundreds of pounds of food waste each week from local restaurants and businesses to turn into compost that would fertilize the urban farm tucked away in a residential area of Pinellas Park.
Clemmons is one of the primary farmers at the garden run by Foundation for Sustainable Families, a nonprofit that works with connecting high-risk families with social services. The garden, which donates its crops to families in need and relies on volunteers, saves thousands of dollars on making its own compost, Clemmons said, mixing vegetable scraps with coffee grounds in a process that takes between three to six months.
She heard from a friend that the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which runs a food pantry, was throwing away a significant amount of food gone bad and approached Monica Brimm, director of We Help Services for St. Petersburg Free Clinic, with an idea: In exchange for the pantry's scraps, they would deliver fresh grown produce from the garden.
The St. Petersburg Free Clinic's pantry is one of the few food pantries in the county to offer fresh produce. Before the partnership, the Free Clinic relied mainly on chain stores' "ugly produce": the produce that doesn't look nice enough to sell in grocery stores, but is otherwise edible.
Since they started, the garden has collected more than 6,000 pounds of waste from the Free Clinic and delivered about 120 pounds of produce, ranging from collards and carrots to Swiss chard and bok choy.
"A lot of people when they think of donating to a food bank think of canned foods, and that's fine, but for individuals to have access to the more tasteful, healthier options is huge," said Gina Ruiz, director of communications for the Free Clinic. "For some people it could've been months or years since they've had a fresh apple, or something as simple as that."
The Free Clinic serves about 55,000 people a month. Hunger in Pinellas County is a persistent problem: one in seven adults and one in four children are considered chronically hungry, according to Feeding Tampa Bay, and the majority aren't homeless or unemployed, Ruiz said. The biggest segment they serve is the "working poor," she said.
The waiting room to shop at the free clinic was filled on a recent Tuesday, and Brimm said visits have increased by 50 percent since the summer when they shifted the model to a client-choice pantry, where the experience of getting groceries is more like shopping a grocery store than accepting a package of food.
Clients are allowed one visit per month and are granted points based on the number of people they're supporting.
Clemmons began volunteering at the clinic and was surprised by the clientele.
"It's always astounding to me when I volunteer there, the people who come through," she said. "There are homeless people, but there are also people that I knew that worked at Shorecrest and now are out of work. Or people that are my son's age, 25, and I'm thinking, man, young people, who just had a car payment or car repair or something and that's cut out of their monthly, they're living on a fixed income. Or elderly people. The scope of people that need help ... there's just so many people."
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She also realized some veggies were far more popular, while others were being ignored. So volunteers began telling customers how they could prep kale and bok choy and left recipe cards near the produce.
"It helps to tweak what we need to be growing," Clemmons said. "We need more collards, way more collards, less Swiss chard. They love to find things like carrots and tomatoes and beets, which are harder to grow but are more familiar, broccoli. They're shopping for kids a lot of times. But also there's a challenge, you don't just want to give them iceberg lettuce because they're familiar with it because that's not very good for you."
Brimm said she's grateful the pantry is able to offer fresh produce to a clientele with a high rate of diabetes and cardiovascular health issues.
"A bag of salad at the store is $4 or $5 where you could get a 12-pack of noodles for $2," she said. "So my mentality is if a person is just trying to survive, I would purchase what's cheaper and easier to cook."
Ashley Rhodes-Courter, founder of Foundation for Sustainable Families, said she is especially sensitive to these issues. Growing up in foster care, she said, there were times when her only reliable meals came from school. It wasn't until her 20s, she said, that she realized green beans weren't square and didn't come out of a can.
"In our society now, you can go from being upper class to being in those lines in a blink of an eye and we've just seen that time and time again," she said. "No family is immune from these issues. … These are kids who go to school with our children. These are parents we see crossing the street. … I think what's staggering is that in our community as resource rich as we are, you don't have to look at a third world country to see kids who are starving."
She said often community gardens are mocked as a strategy for addressing hunger.
"Sometimes there's this stigma that what we're doing here is this hippie-dippy, we charge crystals in the moonlight, but we have people from all walks of life," she said. "Everybody eats. … I like to remind people we work with very low income, high risk and high conflict families. This isn't just a privileged, pie-in-the-sky notion. We're giving tools to families who are really struggling."
Linda Brownell, 57, said she goes to the Free Clinic every now and then, when she needs extra help. She supports a household of three. She said she's enjoyed seeing the locally grown produce.
"Number one, it's your best thing to eat, health-wise," she said. "I try to pass up on all the junk food. Most places you just get the staples or stuff that doesn't spoil. It being here and available is a good thing."
Rhodes-Courter, who said spaces like their urban farm are becoming more difficult to cultivate with city development, said the fresh produce provides more than just nutritional benefits.
"Families get so excited to be able to incorporate organic, fresh produce into the diets of themselves and their children and teach their kids how to cook," she said. "It's bringing families back to a table for a family meal and restoring a part of their heritage."
Contact Divya Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org or . Follow @divyadivyadivya.