By Beverly R. Muzii
It is a sunny afternoon in mid-October and six like-minded volunteers are gathering in
the low-income neighborhood of Richmond Heights in Orlando to plant a grove of 15 different fruit trees.
The initiative is led by Lee Perry, the chief operations officer of the nonprofit 501 (c)(3) grassroots organization, Ideas for Us.
The mission of Ideas for Us is to “develop ideas, fund action, and scale solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.” Their goal is to address global problems with local solutions.
Today, the volunteers are planting fruit trees as part of an ever-growing edible garden project designed to combat the rising concern of food insecurity.
The garden is located on the property of Quest Inc., an organization that works to enhance the quality of life and opportunities available to Central Floridians with developmental disabilities.
Richmond Heights is one of the region’s many food deserts. Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “regions of the country [that] often feature large proportions of households with low incomes, inadequate access to transportation, and a limited number of food retailers providing fresh produce and healthy groceries for affordable prices.”
Perry explained how in this food desert, the average household income is $15,000 and 100% of children are on a reduced meal plan at school. Overall, the food this community has access to is mostly low in nutritional value. This is why Ideas for Us focuses on helping Central Florida communities like Richmond Heights produce a secure supply of healthy, nutritious food.
Ideas for Us began as a student organization on the University of Central Florida campus in 2008 and has since grown to become its own nonprofit.
Each month, the organization hosts an Ideas Hive, which is a community “Think/Do” tank that collaborates on ways to address environmental issues. It was during a 2014 “Hive” event that the idea for Fleet Farming was proposed.
Fleet Farming is now a branch of Ideas for Us that focuses primarily on combatting food insecurity.
“We have about 40 million acres of lawn in America,” explained Caroline Chomanics, chief administrative officer and Fleet Farming program manager.
“The idea was what if we use this undervalued resource to grow food instead of something we don’t even need,” she said.
So Fleet Farming made it its mission to establish micro-farms in communities around Central Florida with the goal of transforming unused lawns into edible landscapes.
Chomanics said that going into neighborhoods and helping residents establish gardens will “empower that community to grow [its] own food in a way that is easier than starting from scratch.”
Since its founding, Fleet Farming has spread its roots across the Orlando community. However, Audubon Park is the home of one of its signature operations.
Typically, twice a month, Fleet Farming volunteers can be seen biking through
the community during what are called, “Swarm Rides.” These are events where volunteers travel by bicycle to tend to the micro-farms they have built.
“We meet at a central location and then we bike less than a mile to our farms and then we bike from farm to farm together,” Chomanics explained.
She said these events are not only an effective, environmentally friendly way of maintaining gardens, but they also are fantastic ways of bringing volunteers together to engage in an enjoyable activity that is as good for their health as it is the environment.
Swarm Rides only take place in Audubon Park, but Fleet Farming sets up gardens throughout Orlando. Many people want to grow their own food, but don’t know where to begin. That is why Fleet Farming gives people the option of purchasing their services and paying for maintenance, fees that go to supporting the Fleet farming program.
“It’s a win-win,” Chomanics said.
Chomanics also emphasized how self-sufficiency is more important now than ever due to food insecurity concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone should really invest some time into growing their own food,” she said. More sustainable systems are the “only way we are going to be able to sustain ourselves.”
It was a similar idea that inspired Ralph Holweck and his wife, Gail Tyree, when they began their urban farm in 2014.
After moving to Orlando from a Central Maryland dairy farm, Holweck wanted to experiment with the new climate. But what began
as a hobby to supplement their family’s food supply soon turned into “Southern Urban Gardens,” a fully operational business that supplies fresh produce to restaurants and country clubs around Orlando and Winter Park.
What makes this commercial urban farm particularly unique?
It is located in the backyard of this couple’s residential property.
Holweck said he takes pride in growing high-quality fresh produce, and all of the food at Southern Urban Gardens is grown naturally.
Holweck calls the food “organic-like” because although it is not certified organic by the FDA, it is produced without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
The food is also more nutritious than most food bought in a grocery store, he said.
“Store-bought produce has often been tied up in the food supply chain for one to two weeks or so before the customer buys it,” Holweck explained. In addition to being healthier, it is also a more secure option.
“Going through the past months of the pandemic, there were shortages on the grocery shelves, and many farmer’s markets were closed for extended periods of time; with growing your own food, you reduce the amount of that food shortage,” he said.
But a backyard farm does not come without restraints. The most significant limitation according to Holweck is space.
“Space is always the issue for people living in dense urban populated areas and small living quarters,” Holweck said.
So, instead of growing food in the ground or in horizontal raised gardening beds, Southern Urban Gardens implemented vertical growing techniques with hydroponic containers.
“With vertical Towers, people with small backyards or even no backyards can grow food,” Holweck explained.
Since developing this system, the farm has been able to grow a wide range of produce, supplied to various restaurants around Orlando.
During the pandemic, though, many of the local businesses that Southern Urban Gardens supplies shut down and some closed permanently. Besides those less-than-ideal economics, Southern Urban Farms has also had to cope with hotter than usual temperatures that have affected his ability to grow crops. The farm is currently not producing food. However, they are expected to have their farm fully operational again by November.
About an hour south of Orlando, in Lake Wales, another organization is considering how to incorporate seasonal planting, so that no matter the time of year, or climate, there are always crops circulating.
Located at the end of an inconspicuous dirt road behind Warner University is the Hunger Education And Resource Training Village. It is an organization that is developing sustainable ways to grow food
through unique agriculture and permaculture techniques.
Heart was established in the fall of 1980 as an unconventional education experience for students interested in earning college credit while becoming educated on how to grow food in a sustainable way.
The program also serves as a training experience for students who are looking to travel to underdeveloped countries on missionary trips. Every semester, they offer a 15-week stimulatory experience of what life is like in the third world.
All students live on campus in primitive-like dwellings and are given no contact with the outside world. During their semester-long training, students learn sustainable ways to grow crops using holistic methods.
“Life-changing” is how James Barker, a former student and now the public relations/ marketing coordinator at HEART, described the experience of learning there. Barker has since traveled with HEART to Honduras, performing missions and teaching people sustainable growing techniques.
A tour through the garden with Josh Jamison, the garden manager, reveals this operation is far from being a typical farm.
With the intention of being as self-sufficient as possible, the garden is comprised of over 200 species of edible plants along with a population of pigs, cows, chickens, goats, turkeys and ducks, who all serve a distinct purpose in a diverse cycle. Their waste is used as fertilizer in the garden and their eggs, milk and meat are used in the kitchen, Jamison explained as rooster calls were heard in the distance.
Another aspect of the cycle is crop rotation.
“We’re always rotating in order to always be growing things that are appropriate for the time of year,” Jamison said. Currently, the garden is in the transition from summer crops, including sweet potatoes to autumn plants, like cabbage and lettuce, which grow better in cooler weather.
Lake Wales has a diverse climate which is one of the reasons why Heart can grow a variety of different crops.
But location also serves as a challenge. Heart is situated on the Lake Wales Ridge, and the ground is as sandy as many beaches. Because of limited soil, a lot of what the organization grows is in raised planting beds filled with modified soil.
“For everything that is in the ground, the key is trying to improve the organic matter content of the soil,” Jamison said. “So, the main way we do that is through compost and mulch.”
This system has thus far been effective. Except for rice, wheat and other grains, everything that students eat comes from the garden. Students also prepare all meals using the primitive methods of underdeveloped countries.
“The idea is for people to feel comfortable moving to Tanzania or into a rural area it’s like a pre-exposer to what it is going to be like in a community like that,” Jamison said.
There to assist them is Jamison’s wife, Emily, the kitchen manager.
Emily works in the open-air kitchen, which usually can be recognized by the aromas of her cooking ingredients straight from the garden. All the food students learn to cook is fresh and nutritious.
Students at Heart may be giving up their “first world” luxuries when they join the program. But they carry the valuable lessons they learn with them as they travel around the globe using their knowledge in order to assure food is a secure resource for all.