PTC is planting seeds for the future

PTC’s emerging gardening program, funded by Alleghany Franciscan Ministries Foundation, is offering short courses in growing healthful foods and is a place where the youth can learn how to garden. Pictured here: L-R, PTC Director Boe Norwood, the Gathering of Women, Inc.’s Mary Footman and Samantha Richardson and Program Coordinator Nicole



ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Technical College (PTC) is doing its part of planting seeds for the future as its Food System Center, an emerging gardening program, is offering short courses in growing healthful foods.

The Food System Center was first conceptualized back in 2016, and Nicole Brand came aboard last fall as the program coordinator and facilities manager. She mapped out the strategic plan for the space on the grounds of PTC.

Once used as a horticulture facility ran by Greg Charles, Brand said “the whole program fell flat” after his passing, and no one had a good concept for the space.

Brand, plants“The urban agriculture community kind of came together and thought: ‘Well, maybe we can at least do a few classes around urban agriculture,’” Brand said, adding that they specifically want to work with the area’s youth and then tackle job creation.

It’s been a lifelong passion with Brand as she wrote her first paper on genetically modified food and policy when she was in middle school and has even spent time in an eco-village in Scotland.

The garden where Brand is working today (Ms. Jo’s Garden named after garden enthusiast Josephine Lampley) is for the nonprofit organization The Gathering of Women, Inc. On the grounds of the St. Pete campus, PTC allows kids from surrounding neighborhoods–often from Childs Park or Campbell Park–to visit the garden and get a chance to see firsthand where herbs and vegetables come from.

“We have a rule in the garden that you don’t have to eat anything or touch anything if you don’t want to, but you do have to look at it and smell it,” Brand said.

The kids learn about gardening and even cooking with some of the plants that include Egyptian spinach, okra, peppers, sweet basil, chives and a host of other delectable edibles.

Though she’s getting a master’s degree in food systems and her thumb is obviously green, Brand says her passion is not merely a love of agriculture but a love for food itself–and people.

“Conceptually, I really like to work with empowering youth and job creation,” she said.

When people talk about food insecurity, she said, what they’re talking about is a lack of access to food.

“What we’re really talking about is poverty,” Brand pointed out. “Not having access to food is a transportation issue, which is a poverty issue. Or it’s a location issue, which is also a poverty issue.”

Some refer to urban areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by as “food deserts,” but Brand believes the term is a misnomer since it connotes something natural. Such areas–and there a few in Pinellas–are the result of poor planning and decades of nationwide redlining.

Consequently, many of them are often found in low-income minority areas. Brand noted that some activists would even refer to this as “food apartheid.” She feels the way to work on long-term system solutions would be to work on empowering the youth from the ground up.

Planting the seeds, so to speak.

“We would like in the next three years to have a farmer training program here,” she said.

And it’s not just about job creation within the agricultural field. What youngsters, adults and PTC students will learn at the Food System Center can directly benefit them in other areas, such as public works, woodworking, culinary classes and other programs offered at PTC.

“And then we’re talking about instead of having a job that’s minimum wage,” Brand said, “we’re talking about a job where you’re popping out a minimum of 25 an hour.”

There are also plans to partner with various organizations around the city and establish a youth farm at the Enoch Davis Center where children from middle school to college would learn many essential skills, including entrepreneurial experience (marketing and selling produce), leadership development, food systems training (health and nutrition education) and culinary training (preparing meals and following food safety practices).

The Food System Center at PTC is quickly growing, said PTC Managing Officer Carl Lavender, and noted that there is a renaissance going on around the city of backyard farming and urban gardening.

“Our goal is to make it a hub for urban agricultural discussions throughout the city,” he said.

And it’s only fitting that this Food System Center has emerged on the campus as PTC Director Boe Norwood knows a thing or two about living off the land and the value of growing your own food.

Recalling his youth in the small town of Bessemer, Ala., Norwood pointed out how his family never wanted for fresh food.

“Year-round my dad supplied all the vegetables, all the meat. We killed the hogs, the cows, the chickens. It was there,” Norwood remembered. “I grew up with that.”

Norwood started working in the garden with his father Leslie Norwood and three brothers at a very young age; pretty much as soon as he learned that food came from the ground. He went on to attend Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and worked his way through school by taking many jobs that were connected with the food and beverage industry. Even when he came home from college, he would always help out in the garden.

The Norwoods often shared the fruits of their labor with their neighbors, and many would come for the delicious collard greens Norwood recalled. His father kept the whole community supplied with vegetables and passed on the value of nurturing and community to his sons.

Though Norwood did not have running water until he was in the seventh grade, he never truly considered himself and his family poor, as they never wanted for food. They even had a smokehouse where they cured meat.

“We were poor and didn’t know it because my family didn’t let us know it,” he said. “We had food every day, but we only had two bedrooms. Seven kids–four boys, three girls–in one room with two beds. We had a pot-bellied stove in the winter. That’s what kept me warm!”

His mother Lillie still lives at that house to this day, and a young man who learned gardening and cultivating from Norwood’s father supplies her with food these days.

Norwood was the only one of his siblings to leave Bessemer and also the only one to go to college, but he recalls his youthful days in a small Alabama town with fondness and says he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Growing up, my family was very close,” Norwood said. “But we had no choice–we were all right there!”

Seeing youngsters working in gardens today brings back great memories for Norwood as he did it all, which included plowing the earth, tilling the soil and shoveling up sweet potatoes and all other kinds of vegetables.

“It could be as big as a football field, we did that!” he said. “You name any vegetable; it was growing in my dad’s backyard!”

He pointed out that nowadays schools have gardens on their grounds where the kids are actually raising their own food like the one at John Hopkins Middle School.

“They have a nice garden with all types of vegetables and herbs and things like that,” Norwood said. “It’s happening now; it’s being taught throughout the school system.”

PTC will be holding its 2018 Open House on Sept. 26 from 5:30-7p.m at 901 34th St S, St. Pete. For more information, visit or call (727) 893-2500.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email

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