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UNF students sowing seeds of hope in urban Jacksonville



With the bright sun beaming down, birds chirping in unison and vibrant-colored produce sprouting up all around, it seems like we’re in the middle of a small rural farm but with cars whizzing by, horns blaring and people curling up on the hard ground to sleep, it’s clear the location isn’t Sunny Brook Farms, but rather a small organic garden located in the heart of an urban jungle. We’re in Jacksonville beside the Clara White Mission, a non-profit organization that has been providing services to the homeless for more than 100 years.


The organic garden was the brainchild of UNF alum Derrick Robinson, who graduated in the spring of 2009 with a double major in economics and communication. Currently employed as a program assistant with the UNF Environmental Center, Robinson got the idea after taking part in a Transformational Learning Opportunity (TLO) on the St. Johns River his last semester at UNF and participating in Leadership Jacksonville. He crossed paths with Ju’Coby Pittman-Peele, Clara White’s CEO, who has dreamt of a community garden for years. Robinson pitched his idea to her and she loved it because it also allowed the mission to involve its Culinary Arts Program, which gives residents the opportunity to learn more about food and food while allowing them to gain real-world skills.


“It’s been our dream to expand our Culinary Arts Program, so we could give our students the experience of knowing the importance of where food comes from, nutrition and the whole nine yards,” Pittman-Peele said. “The organic garden was one of those visions we wished we could implement but didn’t have the experience to make it happen.”


Robinson brought in Dr. Christopher Johnson, a UNF economics professor and his mentor as an undergraduate. Johnson joined the project to help obtain funding and to offer his expertise in micro-economics, economics poverty and income distribution within an urban context. He also volunteered at the mission and was successful in securing approximately $4,500 in TLO funding from the University. “The TLO funding helped get the garden started and will help it continue through the current academic year. We hope that this is something that will continue on into the future. This is like planting a seed,” said Johnson.


And plant seeds they did, under the direction of UNF alum Colleen Herms, a 2008 UNF alumna who currently works with Robinson as a program assistant at the Environmental Center. The TLO funding allowed Robinson and Johnson to hire Herms as the master gardener for the project. She designed the garden and determined the crops to plant. She also oversees the garden and teaches weekly workshops to UNF students and students in the Culinary Arts Program at the mission, covering everything from harvesting to composting to industrial agriculture.


This past summer, Herms, Robinson, Johnson and eight UNF students broke ground and staked out a 50-foot by 50-foot plot of lawn beside the mission, just a few feet away from busy Ashley Street downtown. Since the garden was started in the summer, they planted squash, zucchini, okra, watermelon, green beans and blackberries, as well as herbs such as lemon grass, rosemary and thyme. The brown lawn was soon converted into a thriving garden with hearty produce, fruit and herbs.


UNF students and culinary students work side-by-side in harvesting and maintaining the garden. For many of them, organic gardening is a totally new experience. “Most of them haven’t touched dirt since they were kids,” said Herms. “After the first couple of weeks, they really got into it. They’ve been checking the plants every day.”


Denetrice Brown, a Clara White culinary student, loves having access to fresh produce during the 20-week training program that’s geared towards low-income and disadvantaged populations. “If the veggies are ready to be picked, we come out here and pick them and let the class taste them, so we can see what fresh vegetables out of the garden taste like. This experience has inspired me to eat fresh vegetables,” she said with a huge grin on her face.


Herms says the garden project is personally rewarding. “The population we’re working with is so different from anybody at UNF because they’ve experienced totally different lives,” she stated. “For [culinary students] to have the knowledge of where their food is coming from because they’re going to be chefs, and how to grow it is really essential for them.” Patti Beard, executive training chef for the Clara White Culinary Program, agrees. “Students will be able to take this experience with them when they graduate from the program,” she said. “A lot of them are talking about wanting their own gardens now. I think it’s a great experience for them.”


UNF students are also gaining valuable work and life experience. Although the organic garden project isn’t an official class course, Johnson designed it to be a community-based project to teach students about the problem of poverty and homelessness. “I hope students will learn the importance of multi-disciplinary collaboration in solving problems and will learn that the experience of looking at life’s problems is greater than their one discipline,” he said.


Some of the students are participating in the project as an independent study, while others are simply volunteering their time and talent. Wesley Jones, a UNF junior finance and economics major, is doing an independent study under the direction of Johnson. He said he thinks the organic garden is a really cool project. “I like learning about using our natural resources and making things work in harmony, taking care of our land and resources the best way we can.” He believes the hands-on experience will be beneficial to him in his career. “Economics is the study of how people think. I really like getting to know people and learning how they think, so you can help them better,” said Jones. “If you know how people think, work and their needs and wants, then you can have a better idea of how to really help and not just put a Band-Aid over a situation.”


UNF senior Miriam Craft is a nutrition and dietetics major. She is simply volunteering and using her nutrition knowledge to conduct nutritional analysis on the recipes prepared at Clara White to feed approximately 500 homeless individuals in the daily feeding program. Craft and other UNF students hope to assemble a handbook at the end of the academic year that will help the mission with their organic garden. She hopes to include some recipes, outlining her sources and showing them how to analyze their own recipes in the future. She says volunteering with the garden project relates directly to her field of study. “We work with people and are always educating people. The more experience you have with people from different backgrounds, the more equipped you are to help anyone,” Craft said.


Robinson says the collaboration is good between UNF and Clara White. “UNF has started building that relationship with the mission and hopefully it will continue on. It’s good for UNF students to see life through the lens of the homeless and students trying to get some skills training.” His goal is to expand the organic garden project to other organizations like the Sulzbacher Center and the City Rescue Mission, rescue missions in the Jacksonville area.


Pittman-Peele says the partnership between the University and the Mission is priceless. “You can’t put a price tag on the partnership,” she stated. “UNF has always supported Clara White Mission’s efforts from the nursing and sociology students and now having this piece is really the glue that connects everything.”


Pittman-Peele is thrilled to see her longtime dream of a community organic garden come to fruition. “I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “It was hard for me to visualize a garden out there.” In the future, the mission plans to expand the garden to 11 acres of land it owns on Jacksonville’s Northside and is in the process of soliciting partners to help maintain the garden over the long term. Robinson hopes that the organic garden will inspire people of all ages to work together in their community. “Maybe we can get some community engagement, where people can have something that is empowering the community to make things better for themselves,” he said. “We can give them the tools to do it themselves and who knows what kind of inspiration that can lead to?”