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15th St. Farm Nutrition Education Program participants. (Photo by Funmi Odumosu)

15th St. Farm Nutrition Education Program participants. (Photo by Funmi Odumosu)

15th Street Farm cultivates community health through innovative Nutrition Education Program

Nestled in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., 15th St. Farm is making the most of its urban location, transforming people’s understanding of farming, gardening, and environmental factors that affect food. Notably, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded Nutrition Education Program (NEP), a collaboration between the farm and the Center for the Advancement of Food Security and Healthy Communities (CAFSHC), housed in the USF College of Arts and Sciences, is leading the way in providing education on agricultural science and experiential learning opportunities for local youth.

K-2 students working together in the garden to harvest daikon radishes. (Photo by Funmi Odumosu)

K-2 students working together in the garden to harvest daikon radishes. (Photo by Funmi Odumosu)

The goal of this program is to help improve nutritional knowledge through farm/nature-based nutrition education activities such as a "Young Farmers" program, cooking/tasting classes, storytelling, presentations, and hands-on garden activities. The program also increases children’s food growing and agricultural knowledge through visits to urban farms, and discussions to improve the understanding of food origins, natural cycles, and the interconnectivity of humans, plants, and soil via the microbiome.

Led by 15th St. Farm founder Emmanuel Roux and CAFSHC director Dr. David Himmelgreen, the program is structured to foster long-term healthy food choices by creating environments where children can develop an emotional bond and a close relationship with the natural world.

“Environmental awareness and human health are closely linked. Understanding the cycles of nature leads to understanding healthy nutrition and subsequent wellness,” Roux said. “The soil and its myriad microorganisms are the basis of life on earth, so it is essential to appreciate that we, and all living creatures, depend on soil microorganisms and their health; therefore, it is impossible to grow healthy food on sick soil. Food is not a commodity; it is a complex source of nutrients and an important cultural element; it has a unifying ability to bring people together.”

Himmelgreen, who is also a professor in the Department of Anthropology, knows the value of the program, and its role in advancing children’s understanding of our connection to food.

“They are our future and will be stakeholders and leaders deciding what our food system looks like and how to make it more equitable so that people have more access to affordable nutritious, safe, and socially acceptable food,” Himmelgreen said. 

“Our mantra is to emphasize that healthy soil and healthy plants make healthy people and that we are stewards of our natural resources.”

“You cannot imagine how excited the kids are when they grow a pepper, plant a tree, and harvest the fruits of their labor. These hands-on activities seem to activate a natural yearning in them which is empowering, I believe,” Himmelgreen said. 

Roux also emphasized the importance of heightening our understanding of “nature deficit.”

“Consumerism and the global food distribution system have distanced us from nature. Few people know the connections between retail stores, farms, and nature.”

This disconnect – dubbed ‘nature deficit’ – has profound negative societal implications, Roux explained.

“School gardens, community gardens, and urban farms create a context where students can connect to the natural world and develop human values, many of which were shaped in agrarian societies. The USDA NEP grant program offsets ‘nature deficit’ with long-term positive health, education, and social impacts on students, teachers, and school administrators, given the benefits to the students,” he said.

Grades 3-5 students digging a hole to transplant a banana tree. (Photo by Marcela Munoz Marin)

Grades 3-5 students digging a hole to transplant a banana tree. (Photo by Marcela Munoz Marin)

To be successful and serve the most people possible, the NEP relies heavily on educators, interns, and volunteers to conduct the many activities and discussions held at the farm.

For many of these positions, anthropology students participate and help educate, applying the experience they gain to their set of skills, as they pursue degrees of varying levels.

For two students in particular, the experience with the NEP was useful for the research they were conducting and in expanding their understanding of the importance of community partnership and interconnectivity.

“I have always been interested in health and wellness and when I had the opportunity to learn about 15th Farm, I found it to be a relevant project and a very interesting model for introducing healthy eating to school children,” said Marcela Muñoz Marin, a recent USF graduate who spent the last four semesters as curriculum and evaluation intern for the NEP.

Muñoz Marin shared that she found the methods applied to motivate NEP participants to grow and eat dense and nutritious fruits and vegetables using organic practices were very formative.

“I am also convinced that providing children with the opportunity to experience the benefits of enjoying being outdoors and reconnecting with nature is awesome!”

She recounted one experience from the program she said has stayed with her.

“Each class was an exciting experience, and I especially enjoyed watching when the students got to harvest sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes have long, strong roots and you have to dig deep to get to the sweet potato. I was watching a group of children learning how to harvest them, when a 12-year-old said, ‘To harvest sweet potatoes, you have to follow the root, which is like the string of life’. That metaphor was especially illuminating. [It showed the] meaning gardening was having for him,” Muñoz Marin said.

“Hearing the pre-teen children express how gardening brings them ‘peace and relaxation’ was amazing,” she shared. “Taking care of the garden gave the children autonomy and a sense of pride that I am sure will make a difference in their future lives.”

“Now that I want to pursue a master’s in anthropology, I find that having participated in the 15th St. Farm program has changed my perspective and professional interests. I would be very proud to contribute and do my part in learning more about food insecurity and finding ways to combat it by empowering communities and individuals with socio-ecological agency,” Muñoz Marin said.

Applied anthropology graduate student, Funmi Odumosu, who currently serves as the NEP project coordinator and evaluator, shared why she initially took an interest in the program.

“The program is focused on partnership with the community to address issues of food insecurity and inequitable access to healthy foods,” Odumosu said. “Rather than coming into urban spaces and telling people what they need, it focuses on a partnership that allows community members to be involved in the decision-making and implementation of the program. From the community-based garden instructors to the children we teach, everyone of all ages plays a huge role in the success of this program.”

Odumosu highlighted the joy she gets from seeing the transformation in students’ attitudes as they get more involved in the program and the hands-on activities available to them.

“Initially some of them are hesitant to get in the soil with their bare hands and eat vegetables straight from the garden, but by the end of the program, they are gardening with ease, and snacking on everything from raw collard greens to rat tail radish. They really begin to feel confident in their ability to produce their own food and create healthier spaces,” she said.

“My biggest takeaway from participating in this program is the importance of putting power back into the community,” she continued. “Community-based work requires you to listen closely to the wants and needs of its residents. Everyone is an expert in their own lived experience and no voice is too young or too small to be empowered.”

Student proudly showing a large sweet potato harvested from the garden they nurtured. (Photo by Marcela Munoz Marin)

Student proudly showing a large sweet potato harvested from the garden they nurtured. (Photo by Marcela Munoz Marin)

Odumosu said she plans to pursue a master’s in public health and become a social epidemiologist. She hopes to bring the holistic research methods used in anthropology into the public health sector to highlight food sovereignty and address health disparities in underserved populations and communities.

The farm has had a profound impact on the many visitors who have both taught and participated in the NEP, and Roux said that this is only the beginning.

“We are a few short weeks away from opening our 2,000 sq. ft. commercial kitchen and events barn. We plan to host cooking and gardening classes, long communal tables for farm-to-table dinners, and lunches to fund our facilities, programs, and community dinners to recognize and express gratitude to teachers and other underappreciated vital community members,” Roux said.

“In addition to the 15 school gardens we installed last year, thanks to the USDA grant, we are adding another three and expanding our programs at the teacher's and administrators' requests.”

Himmelgreen said the plan is to continue the program and partnership, so more people can benefit from agricultural knowledge.

“We are working with more skills and developing more activities to bring people out to the 15th St. Farm. We are also securing additional funding for new activities and actively engaged in writing grant proposals to ensure that the program is sustainable over the long term,” he said.

If you are interested in learning more about agricultural science and community and homegrown food initiatives, you can access and download the 15th St. Farm NEP activity sheet, which was recently featured in the UK-based magazine Futurum.

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CAS Chronicles is the monthly newsletter for the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences, your source for the latest news, research, and events at CAS.