At 4 years old, Ka’Zariah White likes to get her hands dirty. On a balmy winter’s morning, she gleefully plunges them into the soil of a community garden near her Parramore Head Start classroom, forming a tiny mound and shoving a seed inside.
“I planted a pumpkin!” she announces.
With sun, water, a little tending and luck, the seed will indeed take root and flourish, teaching Ka’Zariah and her young classmates about food, healthy eating and nurturing the earth.
It’s a new initiative by Fleet Farming, an urban agriculture program of the Orlando-based nonprofit IDEAS For Us — the same group that made national headlines for turning suburban yards in Audubon Park into hyper-local organic food producers.
This time, though, the work is centered in Holden Heights and Parramore — low-income, historically black neighborhoods that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers “food deserts” for their lack of full-fledged grocery stores.
“We want to put gardens everywhere we can,” says Lee Perry, Fleet Farming’s program director. “Grass is just a missed opportunity for food.”
With a $50,000 share of a $250,000 USDA grant to the community, the group has agreed to establish 15 micro-farms — or “farmlettes,” as the group calls them — by the end of next year, though Perry wants dozens more. Staff, volunteers and residents young and old harvest the farmlettes’ lettuce, okra, snap peas, broccoli, watermelon and carrots, giving a portion to the residents but selling the bulk to keep the program running.
There are already six farmlettes, including one at an affordable-housing apartment complex and another across from the Callahan Neighborhood Center’s Head Start program. And this week Toyota sent 40 top executives, including some from Japan, to build a seventh farmlette at Catalina Elementary School.
Fleet Farming’s goal, Perry says, is to help people learn to help themselves, creating a model it hopes to see duplicated in food deserts across the country. And with only a half-dozen employees, it has beefed up its ranks by enlisting small armies of college interns and volunteers of all ages.
In early February, for instance, the group coordinated its first west-side “swarm ride,” in which bicycle-riding volunteers meet to spend several hours clearing land and planting crops. There are no pesticides or chemical fertilizers involved, and because people travel by bike — or, occasionally, on foot — there’s no environmental harm.
Nearly 70 participants showed up.
Part of the mission is educating people about where their food comes from, who grows it, how they grow it, and how far it travels to make it to your table.
“When you buy a cheap tomato in a supermarket, it’s cheap for a reason,” says Caroline Chomanics, program manager at Fleet Farming. “And that reason is that someone is suffering to make that product available in bulk at a store near you.”
The group has gone door to door throughout the area to let residents know how they can participate and to ask them what sort of produce they’d like to see grown.
“It gets the kids and the seniors outside, it gets them moving, and it gets them taking care of something in the community, and I think that’s really important,” says Larry Williams, a Holden Heights community organizer.
In addition to Fleet Farming, the USDA grant money also went to launch a new Saturday farmer’s market in Parramore, which opened in January. Located on the east side of the Orlando City soccer stadium, it offers a place to sell Fleet Farming’s produce at 50 percent off to people on the federal food stamp program — making it affordable to many low-income residents. Nutritional consultants are also working with residents to teach them to use the local produce to make healthy versions of the dishes that are already familiar to them.
Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill, who represents the area, says the mission has been one of her priorities since taking office.
“Sourcing food in the neighborhood, for the neighborhood, will empower community residents,” she says.
The sales at farmers market — as well as to local restaurants — help keep Fleet Farming operating, but with more money it could plant more micro-farms. So the group also has started a fee-for-service program installing and maintaining raised garden beds and “food forests” — small, diverse plots of banana, mango, papaya or avocado trees, perennial vegetables, herbs and edible shrubs. So far, it has worked with private homeowners, schools, nursing homes and hospitals.
“This is more than just cute millennials biking and farming lawns,” Perry says. “It’s a movement and a shift in culture that we’re trying to promote. We want to educate the next generation of farmers — and have fun doing it.”
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5503. Follow @katesantich on Twitter.