Florida Food Dialogues

Our Florida Food Dialogues are one-on-one interviews with experts to learn more about specific topics and gain insight from a food expert actively working to address a specific food area, such as urban farming.

  • 16 Oct 2020 12:24 PM | Administrator (Administrator)

    Elise Pickett, the creator and owner of The Urban Harvest, sat down with FLFPC Board Member Dell deChant and FLFPC Administrative Assistant Kyndra Love for a conversation on her work developing The Urban Harvest, successes and challenges, current initiatives in the local community, and recommendations for policy moving forward.

    Watch the full video here: 

    Or read a shortened transcript with highlights from the dialogue below.

    Dell: We are lucky to have with us today Elise Pickett from The Urban Harvest. We are going to turn over the opening part of a program to Elise so that she can tell us a little bit about herself and get us set up for the dialogue that will follow.

    Elise: Hello everybody! My name is Elise Pickett and I am the owner/founder of The Urban Harvest. I started doing this back in 2014 and I wanted to help people learn how to vegetable garden. I think it's a really important thing to grow your own food and there’s a huge knowledge gap in today’s society. It’s just not something that many of us have been brought up with and raised around. So, I wanted to kind of fill that knowledge gap and be there for people if they have those questions and kind of help overcome the hurdles in the beginning, learn the seasons and the pests, specific to Florida. That’s definitely my specialty. That’s where I was born and raised. That’s where I’ve gardened since I was a child. You mentioned food renaissance and growing your own food—I couldn’t agree more. Especially this past year, I've really been branching out even beyond Florida and really just trying to help anybody and everybody with the basics of vegetable gardening.

    Dell: Remind us again of just how long you’ve been doing it; and maybe tell us a little bit about the growth process in your project, how you got The Urban Harvest started and then a couple of the turning points or major events that led you to where you are today.

    Elise: I started this as an official business in 2014, so I've been doing it for six years now officially. But I kind of decided to start doing this because I had a lot of friends and family members that were coming to me asking me questions all the time.  And it's because they saw what I was doing—they saw me harvesting and producing food, and they were intrigued and wanted to know more. So, I helped them.

    I’m lucky enough I do it full time now. For about the last year and a half, almost two years, I’ve been full time but it was not like that for a long time. I would say that was one of the biggest things to be patient. But I kept doing it because I knew it was needed and now that I get to do it full-time it’s really evolved. Everything was local in the beginning. I knew St. Pete I knew the businesses around here. I’d network, I’d go to the local farmers markets, stuff like that. My sister actually encouraged me to share my knowledge on YouTube but I didn’t want anything to do with that. It was not my scene. But she kept pushing and I finally decided I’d do it and it’s been amazing because now I’m not just meeting face to face with people in St. Pete, I’ve been able to help more people by branching out into that online format. So that was kind of a big turning point. Now I’m able to help a huge amount of people.

    Dell: So, you started in 2014 and you are a for-profit organization. The most common questions that come up are kind of the technical aspects and the business aspects of getting started with a project like yours. Many growers work for either not-for-profit or are in some way aligned with the State government. How does The Urban Harvest fit in with that?

    Elise: So I am an LLC and I strongly believe that, not necessarily for my business model but for a lot of the education and food policy movement, there are places and absolutely time for the grants and not-for-profits, but I also believe that to keep things sustainable long-term and to not have to rely on outside resources if budgets start to get cut or if a business closes down, I want to be able to be independent of that so that I am still able to carry on my mission regardless of outside input. So, it was really important to me to build a for-profit model. I also think that not just with educators but also with farmers and growers and food in general, there is a misconception of what goes into growing our food and putting it on the shelves. I think the true value of food is something that's often overlooked, and being a for-profit model, I hope to show that time is something. Whether you're growing food or teaching people, I think there is value in people's time.

    Dell: Your project then, as you've described it so far, is supplying food for people. You mentioned farmers market and that presumably is working through you doing Harvest on a weekly basis and taking the fresh produce to the local market?

    Elise: I actually did that for a short while. I got into this wanting to teach people but my thought initially was that education is not something people will pay for, so I needed to have a product, ie. food, that I would sell and then my education, which is my passion, would be what the food paid for. So, I did do small-scale farming. I mostly did microgreens, leafy greens, and salad mixes, and I sold to some of the restaurants and produce stands. Farmers markets I did for a brief while but they are very hit and miss. I actually transitioned away from growing commercially. As I was teaching, I realized that even though it would take longer to grow, I was able to do it part-time. I can still grow an abundance of food for myself and family and friends, but I transitioned outside of the commercial side of things and no longer distribute, but I'm still able to support my work.

    Dell: So, is the support largely coming from the educational endeavors now? 

    Elise: So, I do classes and workshops in person, before everything going on now, but now I do classes online a lot. I use YouTube which allows me to offer free content but I'm able to generate revenue from my ads. So, even though viewers are not having to pay for it, I am generating revenue from that. Doing things like Amazon Associates where, if people come to me and are looking for the books that I learned from, I generate revenue from that. And I also have a vegetable seed club, which does help support my income and it is one of the things I'm most excited about. I just started this a year ago and it was something that people kept asking for. So, I send out seeds very specific to Florida, broken down into the regions of Florida: what to plant, when to plant, and the varieties. I sent three varieties of seeds to their door each month so that they have a continual harvest; and it also gets people to grow in seasons that they might skip over like summer.

    Dell: I'm excited about this and your project and that to my mind, from a food system standpoint, what you're doing is answering or responding to a deficiency in the Florida system and really in the food system in general, and that's locally sourced seeds…I do want to stress, and this is for everyone that may be listening to this, is save your seeds. Save your local seeds and replant them again and save them again in the next season and the next season the next season. That's what we're losing on a massive scale. We can be good ecologists, good environmentalists, good organic growers…but the key to going forward is developing the local network, the local farms, the local growers, and the local seed stock.

    Elise: I'm a firm believer in everything you just said and that was something that was really striking in COVID. Everybody panicked and they went and bought a bunch of seeds. Well the seed companies ran out of seed. What do you do? And I had serious discussions with people in our area and we were trying to meet that demand as best we could, sharing seeds getting it out there.  That's also something with the seed club that I do. It's not just to give them seed, I teach them how to start seed because so many people rely on plants, but also how to save seed. And I really agree that that is almost, not more important, but it's just as important as learning to grow the food itself. 

    Dell: It is, and again we want to underscore that, and frankly it's not talked about that much. There's not enough communication that's being done on the importance of seed saving…Let's build up the local seed systems because, as Elise mentioned, and this is and I underscore this as well, when the COVID crisis hit, a lot of people wanted to start growing and so they did buy out the seed companies. Large-scale commercial money-making operations but also the not-for-profit seed sources seed savers ran out of seeds...If we had a robust local system then that challenge would not have occurred, or it would not have been as severe, because we would have had those local seeds…But let's, as we're developing local seeds, I think it's also great if we can develop a kind of a local seedling operation as well for folks that just want to get their seedlings that are acclimated to the area.

    Elise: That was something we just started doing a couple of months ago. We actually, due to COVID, the demand was there. And I just saw so many people not knowing what they were doing and going and buying stuff that's never going to grow here, and they were taking that seed from somebody who could potentially grow it where it could work. So that was kind of frustrating. So, me and three other growers in the area are growing out seedlings. We're not exclusively using our own saved seed for all of it. Some of it we do but just making the right plants available at the right time of year. 

    Dell: What we're talking about, these kinds of projects, tie in with really an idea and a cultural movement that's Agrarianism. The work of Wendell Berry, the great American agrarian, kind of celebrates the ideal of agrarianism and is working still to this day to try to establish that. Elise are you familiar with agrarianism as a concept? I see what you're doing directly related to Agrarianism, The Urban Harvest is really an urban agrarian kind of operation. But did you have any engagement with Agrarianism as a movement or have you given any thought to how your work directly relates to that?

    Elise: I do think that it's kind of like a modern day take on Agrarianism, maybe. My role, I think, or where at least I'm feeling people's needs at this point, is sparking the interest and that slight bit of knowledge. I just encourage anybody and everybody I can to grow something, and I think that that is slowly tying or closing that gap that we have from maybe true Agrarianism. But I think that a lot of people have limiting beliefs about growing in the city or because they haven't grown food in the past that you have to be a full-time farmer to be able to support your own family. So, in my role right now, I'm really just trying to lead by example.

    Dell: I want to switch gears a little bit and use that as a bridge to kind of a reflection on food insecurity, and how what you're doing is a response to food insecurity. And this is still true to this day there are tens of thousands probably a hundred thousand or more people that are relying on food banks right now for food. And you've seen the images of the miles and miles of cars backed up at food distribution points. Every one of those persons in those cars is food insecure. If not in fact just downright hungry…So I see, in a little bit that I know about your work, there's a direct response to that. But I'm looking if you could share anything further about how you consciously envision your work in the context of this crisis?

    Elise: I think that this crisis was a wake-up call for a lot of people, and it showed just how finely balanced, I mean on a thread, our food system is. It also brought to light how many insecure families there are. When a kid can go to school and get their breakfast and get their lunch, maybe they don't get dinner but they got their meals and then that got taken away, what about all those children? So even though this has been an issue the entire time, having to change how they were getting their food brought it to light for a lot of people and showed them just how many people there were. And it's not even just food insecure, there are hungry people in our country. We think we're first world and we don't have those kinds of problems and that is not the case at all. Right here in St. Pete we have food deserts. 

    Dell: I think many of us in the Florida Food Policy Council, as well as folks that are engaged in trying to improve the Florida food waste and the Florida food system in general, are right on the same page with you…Wendell Berry, to go back to the great agrarian again, has a famous quote. He said, “This culture has had the costly luxury of living two generations ignorant of the sources of our existence.” Meaning, where does our food come from, where does our water come from, where does our substance come from, where does our clothing come from, where do all the elements that are most necessary for us come from? We don't know those sources. We've lost them; and by losing them then we've lost touch with the natural environment to be sure, but we've also lost touch with our predecessors and our ancestors, the people that have come before us that were the source of this knowledge. It just all kind of cut off. It all ended in the 1950s and 1960s. And folks like you and I are kind of in a position now where it's all come into our generation, our time on Earth to try to re-familiarize and re-educate folks about these systems about how to grow, how to cook, what's necessary to be involved. At the same time that we're faced with this tidal wave, this tsunami of industrial food and an industrial system that has programmed the consciousness the way people think about food. So in a way we're really up against it, but the work that you're doing, the work that many in the Florida Food Policy Council are doing, the work that we're doing at USF with the urban food sovereignty group, and many of the other groups and individuals, we're all doing bits and pieces to try to make this better.

    The question before us is, how do we make that transition from what many of us are doing individually and on a small scale either as an LLC, a for-profit operation, or a not-for-profit organization or something that's going on through a school or just through somebody doing backyard gardening. What do you see as the steps that are necessary to move from these kind of small and diverse operations to something that can literally turn the tide that can stem the tide of our reliance on an industrial food system that's just swamping the entire culture as well as in certain extent overwhelming our efforts to try to restore a sustainable food system?

    Elise: I think that it's important to acknowledge that until they're ready to accept the information, we can give them all of the material that they need to succeed but until they choose to act on it, it's probably not going to happen. With that being said, I do think that the need is not going to be a choice much longer. I think that we are getting to a point in society where our health and the food system as a whole is not going to last much longer…But until that is forced upon them, they are going to have to choose to take on this knowledge and take on a role in this food system and in our local food systems. 

    I'd also say that from a business perspective, I think that putting as much information out there online as possible is really big. I took it as a personal thing for me when I started doing the YouTube channel. I didn't want to do it. I resisted it and I resisted it, and I realized that it's not about me. It doesn't matter if I’m not comfortable sitting on a computer and talking to people I’ve never seen before. I need to do it because the information is worth sharing. So, if you have an operation, if you have knowledge to share, I think that you need to try to get it out there to as many people and oftentimes that's you know doing Zoom classes or sharing on social media or doing something on YouTube. Those are all free tools that you can use to reach more people. So I think that is something that's an important tool for us as we try to branch out and reach more people. You know, one person only has so much time, so many classrooms they can teach in, but when you take it to that next element you can reach so many more people.

    Dell: I agree. I want to also put out there in our conversation and also for the listeners the importance of getting started where you are with the tools that you have whatever they may be. Even if it's small scale, even if it's just growing one plant, even if it's only going to the farmers market to get locally grown food, take that step. Come on!  Get involved! Take that step. One person doing one thing is at least a step in the right direction…So I want to encourage everyone to take that first step and then be ready to take the next step;  and there will be people ready to help you that will send a hand to you—Elise, the Florida food forum, the Florida Food policy council, the Urban Sovereignty group, all of the many groups as many individuals we're out there we're here and we can affect the change. We can't bring about the change the more of us that are involved and the more links we have, the more connections we have with what's going on, the stronger the work will be. 

    Those that may be listening to our broadcast are also encouraged to check the Florida Food Policy Council website to find organizations and groups in your area that you can get involved in. Some of them are active growers, some of them are educators, some of them are civic activists that are working to change policy and engage in statewide, county-wide, municipal activities to actually change policies so it's easier to get done the sorts of things that Elise and others are doing. Other folks can get you in touch with farmers markets where you can go and support the local farmers that are doing this work. Others can get you in touch with small-scale markets that have a commitment to local agriculture here in our community. 

    Dell: Elise, just as a matter of record and just so people know a little bit more about you and your work, you are a graduate of the University of Florida. In school, what was your degree in and what did you study before you became an urban horticulturist and food Celebrant?

    Elise: My degree was in wildlife ecology and conservation with a minor in Zoology. I was in college of Agricultural and Life Sciences, but I was not directly in ag, which honestly, I’m kind of happy about because I was able to take my own perspective on the food system and not have somebody tell me or train me in that way. So, I kind of learned more like grassroots methods. But it definitely gave me the ecological understanding of soil and animals in relation to plants, and all of the foundational knowledge that's really important as a gardener. 

    Dell: What are your thoughts about, or what is your experience with IFAS and the local extension office?

    Elise: I think that they can provide some pretty valuable resources to people especially when you're first starting out. The soil test there is a quick way to judge how your soil is doing and whether you take the amendments they recommend or not. It at least gives you a starting point to work with. I get my compost tested every couple of years just to make sure things are still fine-tuned. That's a nice resource and it's very reasonably priced…I also think that it can be helpful if you buy a new house and you're trying to identify what you want to keep what you want to get rid of, you can send in pictures of pests and trees that you can't identify, of a fungus that's on your plants; and if you're not plugged into somebody locally or if you're not in a gardening club or a gardening group and you don't know who to ask, ask them. That's what they're there for.

    Kyndra: I'm curious when you first started if you came upon any policy challenges, or as you've been doing your work, if there are any policy recommendations or some things that you would like to see that might help you in the future do what you do better?

    Elise: Currently, I think that one of the biggest frustrations I see is in the food waste. It's like 40 percent of our food is wasted; and some of it is lying fallow in the fields, especially after COVID. They were turning their fields under. There were people hungry but they were turning their fields under because they're used to selling to restaurants and distributing through these mass products. I really focus a lot on composting and building soil and I've started collecting. So, there's a local food bank and they take the stuff from the grocery store and they give it to people in need in our community—they can't give it away quick enough, so then I take it. I feed it to my chickens. I'll salvage it. I don't care if there's some bumps and bruises. I'll eat what I can and then what's left I compost and I turn into soil instead of it going to a landfill and turning into emissions. It's just that there's got to be a way to close the loop on that system. Ultimately, ideally of course, would be to reduce the food waste, but also to create more efficient uses for that product. 

    Dell: Excellent policy recommendation. There are parts of the country that actually have curbside composting, San Francisco is one that I know of and I know there's others. When you put out your garbage and you put out your recycling, you put out your food waste. There's a container for it, they pick it up and then they compost it. So that's a public policy that more cities should have. We should all have that.

    Well it was great having you on! We celebrate your work, we commend you, and we applaud you as we always do. We do want to remind everyone that's listening that you can find out more about Elise at work and you can acquire materials from her website. So please support Elise and all of our local growers and local food activists. It makes a difference and it's how we change the world and how we make a better food system. 

    The Urban Harvest:

    Website: www.theurbanharvest.com

    Facebook: www.facebook.com/theurbanharvestllc

    Instagram: @theurbanharvest

    YouTube: www.youtube.com/TheUrbanHarvest

    Guest Bio: Elise Pickett has been gardening since she was a child with her father. She received her B.S. from the University of Florida in Wildlife Ecology & Conservation with a minor in Zoology. Elise has taken classes across the nation on urban agriculture, composting, vermicomposting, aquaponics, and small commercial production. She has traveled South America with WWOOF to learn more traditional farming techniques. In 2014, she started The Urban Harvest to help teach people the basics of home vegetable gardening, especially in Florida.

    The Urban Harvest’s mission is “to help people learn the basics of sustainable vegetable gardening so that they can lead healthier, happier lives and have a positive impact on our planet that leaves a legacy our children to be proud of. We firmly believe that ‘living green’ can be more than just an idea – it is not a fad but a reality! As people become aware of the implications of our current industrial food system, most realize that making changes are necessary and inevitable. By voting with our personal choices and our dollars we can start to shift the unsustainable food system that is currently in place to one that will support a viable future for our growing world. It all starts from the ground up and we are here to help by providing the educational resources necessary to empower people to start making these changes.”  

    Disclaimer: The views of the speakers do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.

  • 27 Jul 2020 11:11 AM | Administrator (Administrator)

    Art Friedrich, the Executive Director of Urban Oasis Project, sat down with FLFPC Board Member Dell deChant and FLFPC Administrative Assistant Kyndra Love for a conversation on current initiatives and challenges at Urban Oasis Project and discussed policy recommendations that could foster positive change.

    Watch the full video here:

    Or read a shortened transcript below.

    Dell: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, your experiences and what brought you to this particular moment?

    Art: Thanks so much for having me. It's a real pleasure to talk about it and talk about our history. Urban Oasis Project, we've been here in Miami for 10 almost 11 years now, and it really was created when I moved here to Miami and met a woman named Melissa Contreras who was working at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. We really wanted to put out this message that we need to be growing more food.

    My background, I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, so I really grew up in the Midwest and lived in St. Louis, Missouri for a long time and created a community center there. And as part of that community center, we had started a little community garden and it just was really great to see the response of so many different people to that community garden. It was a real way to interact and build a bridge with the local kids in the neighborhood where the community center was. And from before that in high school I had gotten involved in things like the environmental club, I had gone vegetarian and I had gone vegan because I really read a lot about the environmental impacts of industrial farming and so food issues to me really bring together some really core things.

    For one, it's just a universal important aspect of our lives. It's one of the most intimate aspects of how we live—what we're buying and putting into our bodies to feed ourselves. It can really can really be a way that can address so many of the different disparities that we see. Our country was built upon slave labor and creating farms and agriculture systems built on the oppression of other people, and we still see a lot of parallels to that today of farmworkers being severely underpaid, mistreated, you know, retained as undocumented illegals. And so, they are still mistreated because of all those categories yet still run the entire food system for the most part. The flip side of that is where people can really, on a personal level, grow their own garden and really nourish themselves.

    So, Urban Oasis Project kind of brings together a lot of those ideas. That we can create a more just and more economically viable system for small and local farmers, especially in our communities in Miami and in Florida in general. We can promote better public health by making sure that that fresh produce is going directly from farms to people, and highlighting the economic disparities that people are living with—so getting it to the low-income people giving them access to the fresh produce. Combating food deserts, making food more affordable and finding different ways and tactics to make it more affordable and more appealing to those folks. Then, at the same time, that creates an environmental protection benefit by promoting small farms that can have the flexibility to be more environmentally sustainable. But they're all ideals that have to be brought together and work together.

    Dell: Could you tell us a little bit or highlight a specific project or two that has been successful for you at Urban Oasis Project?

    Art: We've been doing things for 11 years now in Miami, so we've done a lot of different things. It’s really a very small organization. Often, I’ve been the only full-time employee and then often two or three others. Our kind of biggest effort was when we partnered with the homeless trust and Carrfour Supportive Housing to create the Verde Gardens Farm. They created an assisted housing community down in Homestead, on 23 acres that used to be the Air Force base. So, they created all of these permanent assisted housing units and then we created a farm market to provide food access and also just jobs and job training for the people that moved in there.

    A lot of what we do now is we run farmers markets in Miami. So we bring farms, when we can, to the markets and then we do what we can to grow some of our own stuff when we have the capacity. We buy from a bunch of local farms and we highlight that every week in our newsletter and links on our website.

    Dell: I’m curious if there was any resistance or pushback from others regarding that policy or that project that you worked on to really make genuine farmer markets local, because here in this area for example, there was pushback especially among folks that were used to going to farmers markets and getting food from around the world out of season and they said I’m not ever going to come back here again, you just don't have what I want. What was your experience on that?

    Art: So, we only have had to be very careful about curating who is selling at our market. Generally, because we aggregate produce from so many different farms, we do have a lot available. Especially during the summer there are just very little vegetables but we have tons of fruits. So, we just let people know that in the summer fruits are going to be local and vegetables are going to be labeled with where they come from. We've been able to use that year-round market and labeling to help push local farms to grow more, whereas it may not be commercially viable things from the permaculture thread. So, we can grow different things and see if people are interested in buying those to eat more local produce that's in season here.

    A lot of our mission is to also improve public health, so we do a lot of programs that are specifically geared towards getting food to low income folks. We do get things from farther away and we do get things from the conventional food chain so that we can maximize the nutritional value getting to these people whose primary concern is food and nutrition. It’s not supporting a whole alternative food system that we need to be creating. It all kind of works together to build a more cohesive and adaptable program for us.

    Dell: You’ve touched on several topics that actually raise philosophical issues related to nutrition in the food system and also making sure that folks that may be in disadvantaged communities are able to get wholesome nutritious food. I want to return to that in a moment, but before doing that I want to highlight a couple of the foods that you mentioned because this is kind of the practical side of our discussion. I think you mentioned some of the Bok choys and I think you mentioned okra, but could you just review very briefly some of the foods and produce that Urban Oasis has been able to grow in Miami so that others who may be interested in doing something like this can do it themselves, either in their own homes or in their home gardens, or perhaps if they envision doing a program similar to what you're doing there?

    Art: I myself have never managed a farm by myself so when we ran our farm we hired a farm manager who was able to run our farm. So some of the local farms would probably be able to speak better to that. For example, Cool Running Farm and just the folks that are now down at Redland Community Farm. But some great things to grow in the summer are Calabasas and Seminole pumpkins. We grew thousands of pounds accidentally one year which we were then able to harvest in August and September and keep them in a cool storage for three months. So we worked our way through just growing what was kind of an accidental cover crop as the farm was transitioning between managers. Yuca is great to go in the summer; it does really well. A bunch of the different Asian greens like the Bok choys, okra, collards, you know, I’ve seen Lacinato Kale. 

    You can do more especially when you're able to not just be a five-acre open field but you're able to grow where there's maybe some other trees for some shade or some buildings to give some partial shade or put up a shade house, which is one thing that we built at Verde Farm, and then be able to grow indoors or semi-indoors under the shade house to limit the amount of intense sun that we get, because we just get so much sun. Things burn up. It's too hot and humid for things to cool off and transpire for the plant to cool itself down. So you really have to have some plants that are well adapted to the environment

    Dell: This is a story for all of us to take home and take away from, that indeed in Florida you can grow a tremendous number of high yield food production crops all throughout the summer and in terms of being able to meet the needs of communities that's what's really important. You need to get the foods that are not just food products that you can grow in your backyard or on a small plot. but that you can produce in quantity so that you can actually make a difference in the food supply and that's what Art is doing down at Urban Oasis in the Miami area.  

    Kyndra: I'm wondering if there are any specific gaps or challenges that you think that we could address using policy?

    Art: First, I would start with a great resource for people to go really deep, and actually it's one that I pulled off of the recent Florida Food Policy Council email, which was for the HEAL Food Alliance. They are a really multicultural group led by people of color that has got an amazing analysis of many different facets of the food system and the areas where injustices are occurring and solutions. So I’ve been just educating myself from that website. It's so well put together—it's visual, it's graphic, as well as just a huge amount of thought in that. So I really encourage people to look to that and to look to especially other organizations led by people of color like Soul Fire Farm that are really trying to you know push ideas that are more often informed by the people that are affected most by the injustices in the food system.

    What we've seen, and one of our tactics, is just connecting more people to food and empowerment through food. So helping people start their own gardens and grow some of their own food is a really basic kind of starting block for people to recognize the impact of food on their own lives, for people who recognize the agency that they can have in growing some of their own food, and you know really just enjoy the process of food more.

    There are so many cultural changes that need to be made. We've seen for so long pushing food from being a source of kind of value and importance to being just a commodity, to food being just fuel for the body, which kind of sweeps under the rug a lot of the really valuable aspects of food—that it's what connects us to cultural heritage and it connects these things together. And so often we see things like the church meal, that's the most important part of the church service in a lot of places, because that's where people can actually come together meet each other and share food. It's such an important thing. So, kind of re-elevating food as such an important thing every day, you know bringing back the just cooking dinner at home, making sure that people have enough time in their lives to be able to cook some of their own meals. If people are working 40-60-80-hour weeks, they don't always have time to cook enough of their own meals to be able to eat healthy.

    Dell: You touch on a couple of issues that are kind of, I think, fundamental and very basic to the kind of cultural change that would be necessary to have not only a more sustainable food system but also address some of the systemic challenges that are present in underserved communities. One term that you use was the commodification of food which has happened on a dramatic scale, on a massive scale especially my lifetime. The commodification of food on the one hand, the overworked American to borrow an oft-used term in economic analysis, that we are overworked having to work 30 40 50 or more hours a week, that we have very little time to spend with our family and with our communities; and in third, you brought up religion somewhat in passing, but I think in a very profound way that very often the religious community is, historically at least, has been a source not only for community and conviviality, but also a source for food. Where people went and ate together and shared a meal. That's how you begin to develop those culture.

    But if you look at those three elements, being overworked, the commodification of food, and the loss not just of religious community but community in general where people shared time together around food, all three of those elements have been severely affected by our culture of the last 50 years or so, but especially the last 20. It seems difficult to me as a researcher in this area to see how exactly we begin to make those inroads. The point you make is good and I celebrate it. That we need to begin to encourage people to do the gardening. We do need to encourage people to take a little bit more time around the dinner table. Yet it seems that we're up against just a tsunami of cultural forces that make those kinds of active activities very very difficult to sustain. So, I don't want to problematize it too much, but I do want to suggest that the challenges are indeed dramatic and what it might take to begin to reverse those challenges. You mentioned a couple.

    Dell: Do you have any other thoughts along those lines specifically in those three areas? What would be something that we might do to be able to address that locally perhaps but maybe more generally in a cultural sense?

    Art: I mean it's tough. Some of it is just kind of changing our value system. More and more people are watching more food programs on TV than they are cooking their own food, even as the cooking programs have risen in popularity people are cooking less and less of their own food. So, you know, people have to turn their TVs off more and take care of themselves better.

    Dell: Your initial response was yeah there's some challenges there but I think as you work through that and thought about it further you hit on a lot of really helpful and insightful observations about what can be done. For example, lifting up the prestige or at least the profile of the farmer. We talk about how in education the teachers are devalued within our culture, well so are the farmers. As we work for programs that would try to uplift the status of teachers, we can do the same thing with farmers, with local growers, with the person that devotes their life to this kind of activity. You hit on, and I just want to reinforce this, the idea of federal subsidies that would be directed to farmers that are working especially in urban environments. The USDA sends billions and billions of dollars to large-scale industrial farming, and yet very little is diverted into urban agriculture and local systems. Very little is diverted into the education of the next generation of Americans. How many resources are devoted to agriculture in the public school system? It used to be that it was not unusual in Florida to have an Ag program in most high schools in Florida, even in urban high schools. Today, they virtually have disappeared. That would be another area where work could be done. And think again for a moment about land-grant universities around the country but let's talk about the state of Florida. The University of Florida, that's the land-grant university, that's where agriculture happens if you want to learn how to be a farmer you go to the University of Florida. How many other universities in the state of Florida actually have agricultural programs, not just a course about farming or food production or the history of food, but actually have hardcore nitty-gritty boots on the ground, learn about the biology learn about biomes, learn about what can be grown, serious developed agricultural programs at universities around this state. I don't think there's a one. So we're educating tens of thousands of persons to become leaders in our society that know nothing about agriculture and have had no exposure to it. That would be another area. Don't get me started!

    But what you've hit on the points that you made about public policy, diverting resources into direct support of local growers, local property acquisitions, making grounds and properties available for folks to grow, overnight would make a tremendous difference. And yet there does not appear, as of this moment at least, a will to move in that direction from a policy perspective, but perhaps there could be. And folks like you Art and what you're doing in your projects and some of the other projects around the state are beginning to make that difference.

    I think what might be our final observations on this is that all of us, folks like you and Kyndra and other members of the Florida Food Policy Council, need to continue to lift our voices. We need to speak out and we need to speak to others about the importance of these projects and do whatever we can to get the attention of those that are making the policy decisions in the state. And if you can find that elected official or that that person seeking elected office who will advocate for it and we can ask those people, “What is your position on urban agriculture?” “What is your position on diverting some of the resources into helping people grow their own food?” “What is your position on diverting resources so that properties can be acquired to grow food in urban settings?” and see if the advocacy that we have can then be translated into political action by the government officials, that we would support in their efforts to achieve a political position within the state legislative position in the state. Those are things that that can be done and can happen.  

    Kyndra: For younger people who are interested in getting more involved with policy and engaging in the food system, do you have any suggestions on how they can do that?

    Art: That’s a difficult question. It can be very challenging to engage sometimes. We get a lot of requests for people to volunteer, which when we were running our own farm we were able to use more volunteers, but in some ways it's often been difficult for us to engage a lot of volunteers. I know up in Orlando they have the Fleet Farming Network, people doing gardens by bikes and riding around the city to kind of distribute network of gardens. I’ve also seen in other places folks organizing crop mobs where they organize a big volunteer day and they go to a farm, so they have a whole bunch of people at once like 20-30 people come out to a farm and spend a day working on a farm together. It's a great way to learn some of the nitty-gritty and get some experience of what it's like to be on a farm. You get to engage with a farmer and, hopefully, create some really big tangible benefits to accomplish some major project that the farmer needs to get done and help them be more sustainable. So that can be a great way to do that and then hopefully those crop mob groups can also be organized to like have a social hour and talk about policy issues as well.

    Food policy councils can also be a great way to have some discussion and learn about those policy issues. I think that's a lot of it is volunteering with some local type of agricultural institution and looking for ways to tap in and volunteer. Especially in South Florida, volunteering happens at a way lower rate than most of the rest of the entire country, so promoting civic engagement by way of volunteerism and giving your time is a great way to learn. Really one of the most important ways to learn like that is through experiential learning.

    Dell: In so many of these instances what you mentioned both from Fleet Farming as well as the Miami-Dade Food Policy Council as well as this food policy council, is to work to develop the network of individuals who are committed, to be able to meet with others that share the vision and develop strategy and tactics to get the word out. So often it seems, especially in Florida, that folks feel isolated, they feel alone, and maybe more so now with the challenges of the pandemic that they don't realize that they're part of a larger group. If you're in an area where there isn't a group, you can start a group, you can reach out to other people, you can be the person that shows up at the civic center and you're the only one there on the first night but maybe two more come, maybe it's three the next night. It does begin that way and it can be a ripple effect.

    Art: Absolutely! We started just by having potlucks and that was all we did. People generally were growing and had their own gardens, so people would come together bring a few things that they grew and cooked up and just got together to create some kind of community around local food. That's you know that's all it took to start growing this organization and that drew in a lot more people because everyone wanted to find gardens and because we were meeting a need that we hadn't exactly realized so tangibly at the beginning. We hadn't like set out it's like, “Oh, this is what we need to do,” but once we did, once we were like “Oh, this is really important work and we need to do more of this,” that just drew people like a magnet to where six months later another organization asked us to start a farmers market in their community and we said sure we can try to figure that out…But for a long time you know it was a labor of love.

    Dell: And the labor of love now has translated into a viable economic adventure for you, that pro your program is successful and you're successful at it, and so I just want to say to everyone that may be listening to this or picking this up sometime in the future is this does work it can be done. And there are stories like arts around the State and around the nation of folks that have just rolled up their sleeves gotten involved found what they love and committed themselves to it, and then a wonderful work evolves from that a wonderful flower blooms as a result of the work that's been that's being done.

    I want to just share one last thought about getting youth involved. If you're in an organization or if you're working with other people, maybe you don't have an organization where you just have a group that meets occasionally, think about perhaps reaching out to the local public schools. Many students are looking for opportunities to serve their community. Many schools have programs where students actually have to be involved in some way and some sort of service to their community. If you can go to the guidance counselor, the administrator, the principal of the school and say, “Hey, did you know we have community gardens here?” or “Did you know that we have a farm to table dinner we do every month? We'd love to have some of the students in your school participate in this.” That very often will open up the door to youth participation. 

    Art: Going back to the way that I got involved in this kind of work, I was 20 years old moving to St. Louis engaging with the local farmers market to get their food waste and then running a Food Not Bombs chapter to cook up all that food waste and just distribute good quality cooked food to homeless folks and to activists, and supporting people that were in need with that food waste. So that was a big part of how I got into this kind of stuff. Now it's come full circle where I’m now supporting a Food Not Bombs chapter here which is feeding over 400 homeless people every week during the pandemic with healthy safe hot meals. So that's been really great to be able to be supportive of that.

    Also, you know, the important thing is it's not going to be a get-rich-quick scheme for anyone. You can't cut corners. You have to create authenticity. It's going to take a lot of time. And that does take personal resources that takes capital. A lot of the groups here they actually had initial support from stimulus dollars from the 2008 recession that the health department put out, and so that allowed farmers markets to get started. And yeah, a lot of them failed, but you know what a lot of businesses fail. So it's not surprising. Even if it's a great meaning for to be good intention kind of business, it may still fail. You have to have that right mix between meeting a need that is there in the community and a community that is able to get that need met.

    Dell: If you were meeting with someone for the first time who expressed marginal interest interested in doing something to make the world better through food, what would be the one guidance that you would give that person?

    Art: If they're just getting started and they want to stay small and stay easy, just cook a meal for a neighbor; bring one person a meal. Use some good quality ingredients. It's going to take a little creativity and it's going to be a little challenge, but it's a great way to connect with someone—with someone new hopefully. Support someone in need and start really small.

    Dell: I can't think of something better myself to say! Art, we appreciate the work that you're doing we appreciate your commitment and your lifetime of commitment to this work. Your work is an inspiration, you personally are an inspiration to everyone that's involved in this work.

    Art: I really appreciate. I’m very blessed to be able to do the work I do. You know, it's me here talking today but my inspiration comes from so many people around me, from so many people that are leading the movements for environmental justice, for racial justice, for food justice. You know, most of Urban Oasis Project is made up of women of color and they're the real people that are doing so much of the work, and so I just can't thank them enough for all their dedication and their leadership, and some of the organizations we named today and so many more people that are really working hard to make a world that is livable for all of us. So, the inspiration it comes from all around, when we look at the people that are taking leadership and value them.

    Urban Oasis Project's Website: http://www.urbanoasisproject.org/

    Urban Oasis Project's Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/urbanoasisproject/

    Guest Bio: Art Friedrich is the Executive Director of Urban Oasis Project and owner of Greenthumb Popcorn LLC. Urban Oasis Project has been working to make a food movement that is more accessible and affordable in Miami for the last 12 years by building gardens, running farmers markets, aggregating produce from numerous farms, running a mobile farmstand, hosting farm to table dinners, distributing Fruit and Veggie Prescription boxes and much more. Since Covid-19 shut down farmers markets in Miami, they have created a virtual farmers market and have a preorder and drive through pickup model, as well as offering delivery. They have also fundraised through those customers to support a growing Community Food Boxes distribution called Project Maracuaya, and are feeding 100 families through that initiative. They have always doubled the value of SNAP benefits at markets, driving more SNAP dollars into the local farm economy and more fresh veggies into the kitchens of people who are most negatively impacted by food access and affordability.

    Disclaimer: The views of the speakers do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.

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