In St Pete, youth-led farm blossoms in a food desert

Justin Bowman has been a youth ambassador at the St. Pete Youth Farm since fall 2020. Bowman, a student at St. Petersburg Catholic High, says you learn hard work and responsibility at this youth-run urban farm in the heart of south St. Petersburg’s Midtown neighborhood. If it is your job to water the plants, and you don’t show up to do your job, the plants may well die.

“It teaches that everybody has to do their role,” Bowman says.

That can-do philosophy runs through the St. Pete Youth Farm. 

After the departure of two grocery stores leaves Midtown a food desert, the City of St. Petersburg, the Pinellas Education Foundation and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete partner to launch the youth-run farm as a pilot program in 2019. High school students such as Bowman spend approximately a year transforming an empty city-owned lot next to the Enoch Davis Center into a grid of planting beds with rich soil where fruits and vegetables can grow.

Today, the St. Pete Youth Farm continues to blossom and expand with the addition of a new greenhouse that will extend the growing season in a controlled environment, allow high school and college students to learn aquaponics and hydroponics farming and produce more food for the community. The Fresh and Local Greenhouse project is a reality thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund, additional contributions from other sources and a partnership with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. 

The new greenhouse is unveiled to the public during the St. Pete Youth Farm’s Monday, June 20 Juneteenth celebration. Leading tours through the structure, Carla Bristol, the collaboration manager for the St. Pete Youth Farm, shows the rows of sprouting lettuce plants and tanks where tilapia are growing. Each day, the wastewater is siphoned from the fish tanks and used to fertilize plants at the farm. The tilapia, meanwhile, will be served in December during the farm’s Kwanza celebration.

Bristol says the farm wants to distribute 500 mini gardens, milk crates each containing four to five plants, in the south St. Petersburg community so residents are able to grow their own fresh leafy greens, vegetables and fruit. Those without the means to pay for the mini garden will still receive one.

“If you can’t afford it, you stil get the harvest,” Bristol says. “We are creating abundance now in south St. Pete.”

The University of South Florida St. Pete campus Office of Sustainability is partnering with the St. Pete Youth Farm to develop the farm as a model for the type of urban farming that can help solve food insecurity and respond to climate change.

“Through this greenhouse project, I am hopeful we will be able to advance the practical learning of sustainable food production, especially in urban settings, that we will provide easy access to affordable fresh and local vegetables to our community and that we will use this space to nurture and promote creativity among youth as well as support more partnerships from various organizations and businesses within the county and beyond,” Winnie Mulamba, the sustainability planner for the USF St. Pete campus, says during the Juneteenth event.

Pointing to the history of Juneteenth today, Mulamba notes how hundreds of years of colonization stripped away the food cultures of African and indigenous  people and disrupted their lives. But community relationships remained strong in those marginalized communities, she says. 

Now, Mulamba says she hopes that the St. Pete Youth Farm will promote health and well-being, inspire the community to recover food cultures and provide educational opportunities that help establish local control over food systems.

For more information go to St. Pete Youth Farm and University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus Office of Sustainability.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather, and Florida's wealth of outdoor festivals.