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Greenhouse Paying Dividends in Providing Food and Teaching Students at Youth Farm

By Matthew Cimitile

Two years ago, the St. Pete Youth Farm and USF St. Petersburg unveiled a new greenhouse to help grow fresh, local food while educating students about sustainable, urban agriculture.

Since then, the greenhouse has assisted the farm in providing hundreds of pounds of organic vegetables along with fish, mini gardens and seeds to the public. It has also helped high school students grow their knowledge of food production, while building complimentary business and entrepreneurial skills.

“I have learned so much about what we grow and how we grow food here and the general financial literacy about how the farm runs. Being able to articulate that has given me more confidence in how I engage with people,” said Jade Keomek, 15, who has been working at the farm for nearly a year. “It has just been a rewarding way to get involved in the community.”

Made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund in 2020, the installation of the Fresh and Local Greenhouse was a partnership between the youth farm and USF St. Petersburg. The university was one of only seven higher education institutions across the nation to receive a grant through the Ford College Community Challenge that year. Additional funding from alumni and internal grants supported the hydroponics and aquaponics system within.

The greenhouse has become a vital part of the farm’s mission in enhancing urban agriculture and addressing food inequality. Located in the most densely populated county in the state, St. Petersburg has a limited amount of land available for food production and a higher percentage of people who identify as food insecure than the national average, according to the nonprofit organization Feeding Tampa Bay.

“The greenhouse is the only large scale covered structure we have at the farm. That is pretty important because with Florida weather, particularly storms, it allows us to work nearly every day,” said Carla Bristol, collaboration manager at the St. Pete Youth Farm. “It also diversifies what we are able to do.”

That diversification allows the farm to raise blue and red tilapia, grow more leafy green crops and gives it the potential to grow up to 500 plants in a controlled greenhouse environment. The greenhouse functions via an innovative hydroponics and aquaponics system, with some of the waste from the farm-raised fish being used as fertilizer to grow vegetables within. 

The St. Pete Youth Farm is growing many varieties of lettuces and kale, tomatoes, peppers, herbs and oyster mushrooms across the farm property and in raised beds. The farm is also providing thousands of seeds to the public, and has given out 550 mini gardens, each containing four plants.

“Everything we grow, we give to the community,” Bristol said. 

Most recently, the farm has incorporated a community composting site. Community members collect their own food waste and drop it off at the farm for composting. This allows people to divert their food waste from the landfill and helps the farm to create its own soil. Soon the farm will provide enriched compost to participants quarterly.

“Results of what you are seeing is us learning how to cultivate the land that we have been stewards over,” Bristol said. “We are learning so much about the community through this farm.”

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