Grant will fight food insecurity in south St. Petersburg through urban farming

A $25,000 grant to USF’s St. Petersburg campus from the Ford Motor Company Fund is going towards a project that will promote food security in south St. Petersburg by producing up to 150 pounds of fresh vegetables for the community each month.

The campus is one of only seven higher education institutions across the nation to receive a grant through the 2020 Ford College Community Challenge.

The Fresh and Local Greenhouse Project could help address food inequality in south St. Pete, where access to affordable and nutritious food is limited. The initiative will engage around 30 college and high school students in agriculture and business development skills each semester.

“Many of the main food options in south St. Petersburg are fast food or corner stores with packaged goods” said Winnie Mulamba, sustainability planner for USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “Increased affordable and accessible fresh food options could be a game changer. Not only will the greenhouse provide nutritious food options to a community in need, it will help educate local students on skills to build careers in business and food systems.”

The Fresh and Local Greenhouse will bring together community partners to develop an efficient and productive hydroponic growing system capable of producing a variety of fresh greens year round. The City of St. Petersburg, St. Pete Youth FarmSustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition (SUAC) and Daystar Life Center will join USF’s St. Petersburg campus in facilitating the project.

Located in the most densely populated county in the state, St. Petersburg has a limited amount of land available for food production and a higher percentage of food insecurity than the national average. One out of every four children in Pinellas County is food insecure, according to the nonprofit organization Feeding Tampa Bay.

“Urban agriculture can play a key role in increasing food security for families living in food deserts,” said Jenny Fessler, past president and board member at SUAC, a non-profit that provides education, community advocacy, and volunteer assistance to create edible gardens. “Urban farms and gardens bring fresh produce closer to the consumer’s table, offering residents the chance to ‘get their hands dirty’ and discover how nutritious food is produced.”

The Fresh and Local Greenhouse will differ from traditional community farms in that the food will be grown indoors throughout the year. The greenhouse will use a hydroponic setup that allows produce to grow without soil, reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

To help sustain the project, 70 percent of the produce will be sold through a youth-driven social enterprise led by the St. Pete Youth Farm and USF’s St. Petersburg campus. The remaining 30 percent will be distributed through the Daystar Life Center, a local charity center located in south St. Pete. The greenhouse will allow local high school and university students to learn about innovative food production systems and the mechanisms behind creating their own small businesses.

“Young people are excited to grow their own food, contribute to the community and develop skills that will help them excel in the future,” said Carla Bristol, collaboration manager at the St. Pete Youth Farm, which works with local high schoolers to promote leadership, entrepreneurship and career readiness. “Urban farming is an empowering activity and we’re thrilled that our students will be engaged in this project.”

As a winner of the Ford Motor Company Fund’s 2020 Ford College Community Challenge, the Fresh and Local Greenhouse will use its $25,000 award to launch the initial project. Once the grant is completed, proceeds from produce sales and support from staff, students and faculty at USF’s St. Petersburg campus and the St. Pete Youth Farm will sustain the project on an ongoing basis.

The greenhouse is scheduled to open in summer 2021.

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