USFSP, local high school students collaborate on new urban hydroponic farm in South St. PeteFord Motor Co. awards grant to support the farm

Fresh and local will soon be more than a slogan thanks to an innovative project to bring an urban hydroponic farm to almost an acre of land behind the Enoch Davis Community Center in South St. Pete at 1664 12th St. S.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) and the St. Petersburg Youth Farm at Enoch Davis are collaborating on the Fresh ‘N Local Greenhouse project, which aims to address food insecurity in South St. Pete.

It will also serve as a social enterprise, teaching local high school students in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) valuable job and life skills.

“This is a youth-led initiative with decisions made with input from the students,” says Carla Bristol, the collaboration manager of the Youth Farm. She is spearheading the Fresh ‘N Local Greenhouse project with Winnie Mulamba, a USFSP sustainability planner.

Fresh ‘N Local Greenhouse” got a huge kick-start recently with news that USFSP was awarded a $25,000 Ford Motor Company 2020 College Community Challenge grant to take the idea to the next level.

USFSP was one of seven universities in the country whose proposal was accepted for funding. Since 2008, Ford has been underwriting outstanding student-driven projects that address community needs, improve quality of life, and promote sustainability. 

A native of Kenya and graduate of the USF Tampa master’s program in global sustainability, Mulamba was instrumental in writing the Ford proposal and pulling together various community partners for the project. “Fresh food is a necessity,” she says. “This is the right time and place for us to do this project.”

The goal is to harvest some 150 pounds of fresh locally grown produce monthly, with 70 percent sold at an affordable price to the community and 30 percent donated to Daystar Life Center, a St. Pete nonprofit with a mission of alleviating hunger, homelessness, and poverty.  

Feeding America reports that close to 16 percent of Pinellas County residents -- including about one in four children -- is considered food “insecure.”  

In addition, the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, the location of the Fresh ‘N Local Greenhouse, is defined as a food desert, lacking accessibility to fresh, nutritious food options.  

According to USFSP’s proposal for the Ford Motor Company grant, residents in the CRA “mainly have access to fast food and highly processed packaged goods, which can create a serious environmental health issue that can impact the lives of families for generations.”

Initially, the idea was to plant and harvest produce in raised beds. But Florida’s summer heat and tropical rains presented challenges. So the group turned to the idea of hydroponic gardening, says Mulamba.

“We will have raised beds at the site but we wanted something that would give us a high-yield production year-round to grow fresh local vegetables.  A hydroponic system will be much more efficient,” she says.

A small greenhouse has been donated to the project by Sweetwater Farms in Tampa and is already being used to grow 12 trays of microgreens. A much larger structure, approximately 24-feet by 28-feet, will be built to house the actual hydroponic system, which is still in the design phase, says Mulamba.  

At two separate workdays in January, students, instructors, and dozens of volunteers dug in the dirt, laid down cardboard, spread compost, and prepared for future planting. One of the first steps was to “build” soil in the newly built compost bins – pallets donated courtesy of St. Pete’s Green Bench Brewing Co.  

Brice Lewis, a sophomore at Northeast High School, and Gibbs High School students Ashton Williams and Shantasia Northern were digging in their dirt and getting their hands dirty as part of the Youth Farm crew.  Ashton Williams, a junior at Gibbs, says he joined the Youth Farm to “learn more about agriculture and to get better at public speaking.” Lewis and Williams say they want to get more involved in their community.

According to Bristol, who was named the collaboration manager of the Youth Farm in 2019, students had to apply for the Youth Farm and be interviewed by a panel of community leaders. They were then ranked and selected from a pool of candidates.

“For many students, it was the first time being interviewed and their first job,” says Bristol, a former telecommunications professional, community activist, and owner of Gallerie 909 in St. Pete.  

Bristol points out that while the program teaches young people how to grow food, the goal is to help inspire youth to achieve academic and career success.  The Youth Farm curriculum includes everything from financial literacy and leadership to character development, communication skills, and eventually, marketing and sales.

“Service-learning and experiential education are some of the most effective ways to instill direct learning and ignite passion in young people. The project is such a win-win for the community,” says Jenny Fessler, the former associate director of the Open Partnership Education Network based at USFSP and a board member of the local St. Petersburg Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition (SUAC). 

Fessler is helping guide the project as a volunteer. She says that “learning about plants, business, technology, marketing, sales -- you pick a learning channel and this project offers it.” 

She points out that the city is providing the power, water, and infrastructure improvements, as well as the donation of land.  But it’s the students who will oversee all aspects of the farm, including learning how to operate and maintain a hydroponic system.

According to Fessler, USFSP associate professor Trey Conner will be working with students to create a how-to-manual for operating and repairing the hydroponic system.  “Something that blends technical writing with visual images -- translatable and relatable to teens,” says Fessler.

Brandon Shuler, USFSP associate professor of environmental policy, will be working with students on issues related to sustainability and environmental policy. They’ll also be developing a marketing and promotion plan to help determine everything from what kinds of produce the community would be interested in purchasing, to what price points would be most acceptable.

In the long run, Bristol hopes the farm will become a community gathering space where food is grown.  She would like to see yoga classes and workshops on wellness.

In partnership with Mitzi Gordon, founder of Bluebird Books, she has already installed a free mini-library book box with “culturally relevant” books. And she plans to place free seeds in the book box, inviting the community to take some packets home and plant their own gardens. 

The next community workday is Saturday, Feb. 27, from 10 a.m. to noon in honor of Black History Month.

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.