A partnership between St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and Grow Orlando is empowering east Winter Garden residents through practical and economic opportunities.
It’s a Saturday morning, and more than a dozen people are tending to plants at various intervals inside a 50-foot-by-30-foot plot of land behind St. Luke’s United Methodist Church.
The micro-farm is part of a new initiative called “Grow It Forward,” a collaboration between the church and Grow Orlando. The mission is simple — empowering residents in east Winter Garden to grow their own food and nourish their community.
Overall, the micro-farm initiative is a response to the community’s food insecurity, particularly in the midst of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Its purpose is to use available lands in neighborhoods for gardens and farms to increase residents’ access to fresh and affordable produce.
GROW IT FORWARD
Amy Winslow, director of missions at St. Luke’s, said the church has a five-year, congregation-wide plan with two major initiatives — impacting family homelessness and childhood hunger.
“Through those initiatives, we’ve been doing a lot of different nutrition programs,” Winslow said. “We’ve been doing — since COVID — some much-needed food distributions. We’re trying to take it to a more empowering level by bringing access to healthy foods to the community and working with the community to make sure that there are stakeholders and educated youth … to sort of own this and run it as a business through learning skills and making an income.”
The model allows for community-based food production, which leads to food and economic sovereignty though employing youth farmers. Currently, Winslow said, four youth farmers from the east Winter Garden community are employed as part of the initiative.
Winslow said Grow It Forward is being considered a pilot program. Once the program is successful, St. Luke’s wants to encourage other houses of faith to try a micro-farm on their property, she said.
“Our goal is to raise money at St. Luke’s to help employ farmers and help others get their farm started,” she said. “We want to target churches in some of these traditionally food-desert locations so that there’s healthy food in your neighborhood that you control and that you turn into a business.”
Typically, food deserts are defined as urban areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality, fresh food.
“A lot of these communities, all they have is these corner stores where the food is not healthy and it’s priced higher,” she said. “On the Central Florida Alliance to End Hunger, we’re mapping the three-county area, mapping where the grocery stores are and finding these pockets in the communities where they’re underserved.”
That’s where the collaboration with Grow Orlando comes in, she said. Winslow said Grow Orlando Executive Director Frank Bailey is looking to eradicate food deserts, enhance personal and professional development for young people, and help with economic development in local communities.
St. Luke’s already has an established partnership with many stakeholders in the east Winter Garden community, and Winslow said it made sense to continue expanding those partnerships and providing new opportunities for residents.
“With Grow Orlando, we are paying the student farmers an hourly wage, and then Grow Orlando also hires a farm coordinator, and we’re paying that person an hourly wage,” Winslow said. “We also have members of our congregation volunteering and paid student farmers that are from the east Winter Garden community coming to work on the weekends side-by-side with us. … It’s one of those, ‘If you build it, they will come’ things. People with different talents and time arrived and helped develop the land and start to grow things.”
“It’s supporting Grow Orlando’s individual mission to serve and pay youth to work in food and agriculture while it’s also serving the church’s specific mission to end hunger. It’s a beautiful partnership that’s coming together in this micro-farm model.” — Hanah Murphy
Things are moving quickly now at the micro-farm on the St. Luke’s campus. The church, Grow Orlando and other program stakeholders hosted a groundbreaking ceremony Oct. 3.
Already, what has been sowed is quickly growing. Winslow said that includes cabbage, beets, onions, carrots, radish, kale, mint, broccoli and chard.
“We just started our first planting of seeds this fall,” she said. “We’re trying to learn and also document so that we’ve got some wonderful materials to turn over to other houses of faith that might be interested to do this, and we’ll be involved to get them started, as well.”
Hanah Murphy, Grow Orlando’s farm coordinator who is serving as part of this partnership, said Grow Orlando has been working for years on creating food-producing gardens wherever there is space.
“They form partnerships between schools and community gardens at sites like this,” Murphy said of Grow Orlando. “Their aim is to use agriculture as a platform and method of working with youth — not only paying them, but working on job development such as career readiness, personal growth. … Even in this small plot of ground, you can grow so much food. This can serve not only constituents of churches who decide to grow in the same model, but (also) surplus can be sold.
“A big vision would be connecting this with food-business entrepreneurs and collaborating and getting this food into markets and to other restaurants — really marrying this idea of food sovereignty with economic opportunity,” Murphy said.
The four youth farmers who hail from east Winter Garden are learning great skills, too. They get to oversee the entire growing process, from planting the seed to harvesting. They will then sell their produce to area businesses — such as Pammie’s Sammies and Axum Coffee — and receive a percentage of the profit. Another percentage goes back to Grow It Forward.
“They’re asked to show up with their best self, open and willing to learn,” Murphy said. “All of them work hard. It’s in the nature of farming. And we also work off of a work-maturity assessment matrix … we use that to evaluate the growth of each student on a lot of different factors. … It’s supporting Grow Orlando’s individual mission to serve and pay youth to work in food and agriculture while it’s also serving the church’s specific mission to end hunger. It’s a beautiful partnership that’s coming together in this micro-farm model.”