Students in south St. Pete learn about healthy eating while growing their own food

05/09/12 Seán Kinane
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Students at two south St. Petersburg schools are learning about healthy eating by growing their own food. Organizers hope the knowledge the kids get will help them continue to make smart food choices as they grow up.

An organization called The Edible Peace Patch has helped to create gardens at Lakewood Elementary and Sanderlin IB World School in areas of south St. Petersburg facing economic challenges. The gardens manager, Erin Mattick, says students don’t normally get a chance to grow their own food, but “they love it. They have mixed reactions as you would guess. We do a lot of different lesson plans and activities outside. So a lot of times we’ll focus on, like, plant parts but their favorite is the bug lesson. We get to get in the compost. And even when they’re grossed out they’re having a lot of fun. So they love it. They love the hands-on activity,” she says.

The non-profit’s founder and chair of the board of the The Edible Peace Patch Project is Kip Curtis. He thinks the school gardens can be the first step in strengthening the community.

“These are part of a larger project where we’re going to be building an urban farm – a full-scale farm on the south side. We’re looking at a couple of properties right now and a food commissary to prepare food for the cafeterias. And what we intend to do is actually grow enough food to serve and sell it in the cafeterias in the south side, try to get healthy, nutritious food into the cafeterias and introduce kids to actually growing it in their own school yards. So kind of building a full food system. And then we would like to use the farm and the commissary as opportunities to do job training and entrepreneurial training and create opportunities in this new food systems economy that’s emerging right now.”

Curtis wants to harness the cultural wave that’s popularizing local and organic food and use it to change the way students in this part of town view eating.

“Particularly in the south side (of St. Petersburg) in our Title I schools, there’s chronic issues of asthma and diabetes, obesity. We find that in economically challenged communities, people who are spending a large part of their [budget] on food are having to make some choices to buy the cheapest food. And the cheapest food winds up not being very good for them and not very healthy. So there’s a dearth of healthy nutritious food in poor communities. It’s a phenomenon we’ve known for about ten years, we call them ‘food deserts.’ So the absence of supermarkets is essentially the definer of a food desert. But within those regions you not only have an absence of a supermarket, but an absence of affordable food, healthy nutritious food, knowledge about affordable healthy food and then an overwhelming amount of bad food: fried foods, processed foods. And so you have a health crisis that goes along with an economic crisis.”

In March, Curtis helped organize the Edible Peace Fest, a fundraiser and community get-together where six local bands entertained supporters at a bar not far from Lakewood Elementary, where gardens manager Mattick pointed out the students were growing a variety of crops.

“We have a lot. We have a large diversity of plants. We try to do a lot of ethic foods as we’re in a more ethnic neighborhood. So we do okra, collard greens. Everybody loves corn. The carrots are the favorite to pull. We also do strawberries, raspberries; I just got some banana trees. And I do everything, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin, squash, any kind of gourd. … I just started doing tomatoes and tomatillos.”

In addition to the health benefits of eating locally-grown food, Curtis emphasizes the instruction the kids are getting.

“We’ve actually got the science education connected with this. So they’re learning science, practical science, applied science and learning that it’s something that they don’t need to be afraid of. But they’re also learning about rhythms of the planet – sustainability rhythms, right? What is the climate? What is our sand and soil like? What kind of nutrients are needed? Which gives them a richer understanding of their place, a kind of ‘eco-literacy’ is the term of art for it. So they understand where they live a lot better. And it also creates a connection for them understanding where their food, their basic sustenance comes from as well.”

Previous WMNF News coverage of Edible Peace Patch.

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