Healthy 22nd Street brings boxes of hope to food deserts in East Tampa

Creating community gardens and teaching people how and why it’s important to grow their own food has been a top priority in urban food deserts around the country for the last five or six years.

Add in the economic devastation caused by COVID-19, subsequent job losses and evictions, and a growing homeless population paired with a tax shortfall that is squeezing the life out of charitable organizations and government agencies, and what do you see?

A keen sense of urgency surrounding food insecurity and a few determined souls stepping up in neighborhoods like East Tampa to make room for improvements -- and to encourage more healthy living.

The local Coalition of Community Gardens opened what they are calling the Healthy 22nd Street Initiative in East Tampa in December for neighborhood residents.  

Co-Founder of the Coalition of Community Gardens, Kitty Wallace, explains how the organization sprouted into what it is today after several similar gardens began to show stability while others failed over the last three to four years.

A few years ago, Wallace and Lena Young Green from the Tampa Heights community garden decided to merge their efforts to help out upcoming and existing gardens.

“We decided to make ourselves into a little network and our purpose would be to support each other’s success as community gardens and to support growing community gardens,” Wallace says. “We met in each other’s gardens every three months. … you pick up at least one, if not two, three, four ideas at any anybody else’s garden.”

While in Tampa Heights, they noticed there was only one grocery store at the far northwest corner of the neighborhood.

“We started asking that question; How do we take a look at this? What is this problem? What is the extent of people not being able to get to a place where they can easily, without taking a whole day off of work, two buses, and all of that to get to a grocery store five miles away?” Wallace says.

After brainstorming about solutions, they pulled together like-minded organizations to apply to the Healthiest Cities/Counties Challenge to help close the gaps in food accessibility in East Tampa, where food inequities were the worst.

“We decided that we would try to have an impact by producing a way for folks to grow their own vegetables, either in community gardens or in communities of gardeners in these neighborhoods,” Wallace says.

The Coalition worked in partnership with the Garden Steps Project. The Healthy 22nd Street Initiative open house was sponsored by the American Public Health Association and funded by the Aetna Foundation. Other Garden Steps partners include Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County, Hillsborough Department of Health, and the Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit.

Together, these organizations led their project, Garden Steps, to runner up in the national challenge of the Healthiest Cities/Counties Challenge, receiving $50,000 to implement their goals.

Obesity remains an issue in food deserts 

In 2015, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Hillsborough County 28th out of Florida’s 67 counties for high rates of obesity.

The Johnson Foundation is the nation’s largest charitable organization working to fix significant health issues that particularly plague low-income communities. Among their findings and contrary to common beliefs, obesity isn’t always about overindulgence. In poverty-stricken populations, it’s often driven by limited food choices, including a lack of access to fresh food and food insecurity (not knowing where your next meal might come from).

An area is identified as a food desert when it has limited access to both nutritious and affordable food. That combination can lead to obesity and a greater risk for diabetes, heart and other cardiovascular diseases, and a variety of diet-related conditions.

Data gathered by the Hillsborough County Community Survey in 2019 showed the greatest food insecurity in Sulphur Springs, the University Area, Temple Terrace, Palm River, East Tampa, Forest Hills, and Egypt Lake. In these areas, more than 60% of households survive on $50,000 or less in annual income.

Pre-COVID, the Tampa Bay Network to end Hunger analyzed data on hunger/food insecurity in 2019, and thus identified neighborhoods that show 40% food insecurity or more. Food insecurity issues have expanded with COVID.

Addressing one neighborhood at a time

Phase one of the East Tampa project is Healthy 22nd Street.

“All along 22nd Street, there will be pockets of gardens, and pockets of places where vegetables are being grown in attractive planters with information of how to get one of these garden boxes to go to your front yard so that you can grow your own broccoli, your own collards,” Wallace says. “We are hoping over the next couple of years we will have a beautiful set of gardens from the Sligh Avenue area of 22nd Street all the way down into Ybor City.”

A total of about $15,000 will be invested to support this program.

Each garden box is a self-sustaining, self-watering garden container with wicking material to cut down on the time needed to maintain it. Those who attended the open house on December 19 were able to stop by, ask questions, and decide if they wanted to join in on the effort and take home their very own garden box. The funds from the grant made about a dozen of the garden boxes available for free. Someone from the Coalition will follow up regularly to see how the gardens growing and lend advice and assistance if needed.

“Lena Young Green and I have been co-founders of the Tampa Heights community gardens since 2011 so we’re in our tenth season right now. So, we’ve had an impact in our community garden of about 300 people, now probably more that have been in our garden, or have learned gardening from us and then have loved it and gone home and made their own garden boxes,” Wallace says. There are 75 gardens at the Tampa Heights community garden.

Wallace goes on to explain the impact gardening has had on kids in these communities, not only through better nutrition but also by giving them something to do and a chance to enrich their education through their kids gardening group. She describes a moment in which a group of hungry 4th- and 5th-grade boys were picking kale leaves, washing, and immediately enjoying the vitamin-rich leafy greens.

“I looked around like ‘Where are all the boys?’ and I turned around and they’d all gone over into the shade and were talking about their kale leaves. … It was the most precious of memories.”

As of now, the Coalition members aren’t exactly sure of the immediate impact of the gardens but they are hoping that in 10 years this whole project can come back as a big wave helping pick up these people in these lower-income communities.

“It’s not rocket science,” Wallace says, “it’s just dirt, seeds, and water.”

For more information, visit the Coalition of Community Gardens website.

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Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.