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USF’s St. Petersburg campus receives grant to fight food insecurity

Jaymi Butler

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Through a $25,000 grant, USF's St. Petersburg will launch an urban farming initiative that will produce up to 150 pounds of fresh vegetables for the South St. Petersburg community each month.

The City of St. Petersburg has a new ally in its ongoing battle against food insecurity.

Thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund, the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus will be able to launch its Fresh and Local Greenhouse Project in summer 2021. The initiative will promote food security in South St. Pete by producing up to 150 pounds of fresh vegetables for the community each month. 

“Many of the main food options in South St. Petersburg are fast food or corner stores with packaged goods,” said Winnie Mulamba, sustainability planner for USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “Increased affordable and accessible fresh food options could be a game changer.”

Food insecurity has been a major issue in St. Petersburg – and Pinellas County as a whole – for many years. According to data from Feeding Tampa Bay, more than 134,000 Pinellas County residents are food insecure. The city has taken several steps to combat food insecurity over the last few months, including the creation of a Food Policy Council, an advisory board aimed at creating an equitable, community-based system that would remove barriers that prevent residents from accessing healthy food. The city’s Development Review Commission also recently advanced a measure that would expand opportunities to grow and sell local produce in the city, including in residential districts.

Unlike traditional community farms, the Fresh and Local Greenhouse will grow food indoors through a hydroponic setup that allows produce to grow year-round and without soil, which lowers costs and increases efficiency. Projects like these that promote urban agriculture can play a key role in increasing food security for families living in food deserts, said Jenny Fessler, past president and board member at the Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition, a nonprofit that is partnering with USF on the initiative.

“Urban farms and gardens bring fresh produce closer to the consumer’s table, offering residents the chance to ‘get their hands dirty’ and discover how nutritious food is produced,” she said. 

To help sustain the project, 70 percent of the produce will be sold through a youth-driven social enterprise led by the St. Pete Youth Farm and USF. The remaining 30 percent will be distributed through the Daystar Life Center, a local charity center located in South St. Pete. The greenhouse will allow local high school and university students to learn about innovative food production systems and the mechanisms behind creating their own small businesses. About 30 high school and college students will work on the project each semester.

“Young people are excited to grow their own food, contribute to the community and develop skills that will help them excel in the future,” said Carla Bristol, collaboration manager at the St. Pete Youth Farm, which works with local high schoolers to promote leadership, entrepreneurship and career readiness. “Urban farming is an empowering activity and we’re thrilled that our students will be engaged in this project.”

USF was one of only seven higher education institutions to receive the grant through the 2020 Ford College Community Challenge, a contest which encourages students to develop ideas for innovative projects that address community needs. Once the grant funds are exhausted, proceeds from produce sales and support from staff, students and faculty at USF and the St. Pete Youth Farm will sustain the project on an ongoing basis.

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