By Sandra C. Roa, University Communications and Marketing
While watering a small bed of rapini, a type of broccoli, 10-year-old Maurice Williams is careful to not disturb the bees. “Bees help your plants grow because they pollinate with other plants,” he said.
A fifth-grade student at the Academy Prep Center for Education in St. Petersburg, Maurice is one of hundreds of elementary and high school students in Pinellas County participating in the 15th Street Farm Nutritional Education Program (15th Street Farm-NEP). The new USF-led initiative brings farming to local schools and communities.
As the cost of food rises, USF researchers remain focused on households struggling with food insecurity. The two-year program aims to educate communities on the food growing ecosystem and healthy eating. It recently received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop easier access to nutrient-dense foods by growing fresh fruits and vegetables, which was once common to many families with a yard.
“Research shows that food is the first thing to be compromised. Food nutrition is part of insecurity. Lower-cost food is less healthy and can exacerbate existing health issues,” said anthropology Professor David Himmelgreen, director of the USF Center for the Advancement of Food Security and Healthy Communities.
Himmelgreen’s lifelong research addresses issues of food insecurity and health. Community partnerships are central to being able to identify the needs of underserved communities and determine the impact of initiatives, such as Feeding Tampa Bay’s Food Rx program, which offers food as medicine.
Partnerships with local schools and agencies are key to 15th Street Farm-NEP’s goal to teach children from underserved communities about agricultural science.
USF graduate student Funmi Odumosu facilitates gardening workshops at the James B. Sanderlin Family Center in St. Pete. [ Photo Courtesy: 15th Street-NEP ]
“It’s nice to see students taking some of their knowledge from science class and applying it to real-world scenarios,” said Thomas Cassano, math teacher and supervisor for the gardening enrichment program at the Academy Prep Center for Education in St. Petersburg. “Now they are seeing why they are learning that in the classroom and the importance of it.”
Cassano’s students are learning first-hand about soil, microbiomes and insects. They’ve been trying to ward off grasshoppers in order to protect the fruit of their labor from being eaten.
“I think they like taking care of things, they like the responsibility,” Cassano said.
The 15th Street Farm-NEP team developed several initiatives to restore older garden beds, build new ones and educate communities about the interconnectivity between humans, plants and soil microbiomes.
“We feed the soil, to feed the plants, to feed us,” said Emmanuel Roux, director of the 15th Street Farm and a program developer for the 15th Street Farm-NEP team. “That is the cycle of life.”
Growing nutritious food requires fertile soil. Unlike most farmers, Roux uses very little fertilizer. Instead, he focuses on replicating the natural systems where microorganisms transform organic material into nutrients for bacterial communities that in turn, feed the plants. This ecosystem results in nutrient-rich foods and benefits human health.
Roux is working closely with USF undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Anthropology to develop experiential learning and hands-on activities that include planting and caring for garden beds, composting and cooking classes.
Anthropology undergraduate student Marcela Muñoz Marin is working closely with instructors to develop educational resource materials. Muñoz Marin designs resources according to the age of students, which range from pre-school through high school. Some are as young as 3 years old.
“We prepare stories to help little kids to understand the message about healthy eating. For middle school kids and teens, we need to motivate them differently. They might be asked to cut a tree clipping and replant it,” Muñoz Marin said.
The program’s curriculum is designed to help instructors and students reconnect with nature and food growing systems. The team wants to examine how knowledge about food systems and gardening can impact community health and healthier eating.
“Being immersed in nature and the environment where food is grown – from the basics of planting seeds – gives you a broader appreciation of the earth,” said Funmi Odumosu, first-year master’s student in the Department of Anthropology and project manager for the 15th Street Farm-NEP program. “It’s that connection between microbiomes and soil that we want to bring to the kids.”
Himmelgreen advises Odumosu’s research studies. Himmelgreen’s hope is to train students to do research and become the next generation of leaders to battle against food insecurity.
“Food is so central to the human experience. Without food, without water, you don’t survive very long. It’s really important to try to understand how people survive when the going gets tough, and if they can't, what do we do about that to make the world a little more equitable?” Himmelgreen said.
The 15th Street Farm-NEP program is located in downtown St. Petersburg and is open to the public. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact Funmi Odumosu at firstname.lastname@example.org.