MANATEE -- Bishop Lawrence C. Livingston was haunted for years by something several members of his church told him. "You are a poor steward, pastor. You have all this land and you could be feeding hungry people," they said of the acreage next door to Eternity Temple First Born Church.
Finally in April, Livingston was able to put his mind at ease when the church opened an 80-square-foot community garden in his Washington Park neighborhood at 716 29th St. E.
The church used an $8,418 grant from State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, awarded on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in January, to erect a fence and storage shed on the property.
"We started with 19 families, and in a small sense I've been taken off the hook with God for being a poor steward," Livingston said.
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Washington Park, located east of Palmetto, is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls a "food desert."
Food deserts are areas where residents lack access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Many times residents in those neigh
borhoods are poor and have no automobile transportation. Typically, food deserts are not served by super markets or farmers markets.
Residents in food deserts may become overly dependent on fast food and junk food, helping feed the obesity epidemic.
There are 19 food desert areas in Manatee and Sarasota counties, affecting 77,583 residents, according to county health departments.
Food desert or not, a number of Manatee County communities have started community gardens, or are studying the possibility of starting one.
The appeal of fresh, healthy, home-grown food cuts across all demographic and social strata.
The Colony Cove manufactured home community in Ellenton has had one since 2013.
The Manatee County Health Department is planning one on its campus at 410 6th Ave. E,, Bradenton.
Lakewood Ranch residents, who have a wealth of healthy food choices in their community, are also looking into starting a community garden.
"It's not just about gardening. It's also about social interaction with other like-minded individuals. There could be picnic tables, benches, and places for people to gather around the garden and have lunch together. This would be a real asset for the community," said Joe Sidiski, a resident of Greenbrook Village and a supervisor for Community Development District 4.
The Lakewood Ranch garden is proposed for a fenced portion of Adventure Park. Residents might pay an annual fee for a plot of land where they could grow their own vegetables or flowers.
A meeting is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 2, at Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, to discuss the idea with residents and gauge their enthusiasm for a community garden.
Karen Windon, deputy county administrator, is an enthusiastic supporter of community gardens.
"We miss an opportunity in our community by not having these fresh fruits and vegetables, and engaging our kids in that effort. I feel like this is an untapped opportunity for us," Windon said.
Windon was part of a steering committee working with the county health department on community wellness.
"We have all these kids whose obesity levels are creeping up. We have talked about how we could make the community aware, especially in the areas of food deserts," Windon said.
Much of the urban core of Palmetto and Bradenton is deemed a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Megan Jourdan, community health specialist, would like to see a community garden opened on the Manatee County Health Department campus within the next year.
"The surgeon general has a healthiest weight campaign and one of the tenets is creating access to healthy food," Jourdan said.
She believes a vacant plot of land that once housed the environmental health and vital statistics functions for the health department would be an ideal location for a community garden.
And that's not just Jourdan's belief.
"This is a consensus. This is county property and they are very supportive," Jourdan said. "It's not much to look at now, but it will be beautiful."
And it's not necessarily all just the health department advocating starting a community garden.
"We have been getting lots of calls from neighbors asking for a community garden," Jourdan said.
Among those wanting to see the opening of the community garden at the health department are members of the Manatee River Garden Club.
"We would like to give money and time to the community garden," said club member Sharon Jones. "The club has more than 100 members ready to help."
The model for the community garden would most likely be based on one in Sarasota, where the garden is open to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis.
The health department is applying for grants to supply the seed money for starting the garden.
"A garden does take some work, but we have beautiful weather for growing in Florida," Jourdan said.
The Manatee County extension office is now interviewing for a part-time staff member to assist with community gardens, said vegetable agent Crystal Snodgrass.
"This is something I see as up-and-coming," Snodgrass said of the interest in community gardens.
For more information on starting a community garden, call the county extension office at 941-722-4524.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.