Manatee food desert residents want gardens

Erin Laird knocks on a door to conduct an oral survey on food deserts with residents.
Erin Laird knocks on a door to conduct an oral survey on food deserts with residents. Provided photo

Manatee County residents living in food deserts want one thing: to grow nutritious, healthy food in their own homes.

“Gardens themed tremendously in our focus groups,” said Erin Laird, a public health associate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who worked on the Healthy Food Access project with the Florida Department of Health-Manatee. “So we asked, ‘where do you want to grow your own food?’ Thirty-two percent said yes to a community garden and more wanted it in their own yard. But they need help.”

Food deserts are defined as areas where residents do not have easy access to fresh, affordable foods. The Healthy Food Access project, a collaboration between the Manatee and Sarasota health departments, focused on working with food-desert residents to identify food-access barriers and solutions. According to the research, only 25 percent of adults in Manatee County and 27 percent in Sarasota County live within a half-mile of a healthy food retailer. Laird presented the project’s findings at a Manatee County Commission work session Tuesday morning.

“Food deserts have a negative impact on the health of a community, leading to increased obesity levels because junk food and fast food are more readily available for residents to buy than nutritious food,” said Megan Jourdan, who was the director of Public Health Practice and Policy at the Department of Health-Manatee during the project. Jourdan now works in Washington, D.C., for the National Association of County and City Health Officials as a director of Community Health Promotion, a nonprofit dedicated to representing and supporting health departments nationwide.

The food desert areas studied in the project include Samoset, East Bradenton, Washington Gardens, Rubonia, Pride Park, Newtown and North Port. To narrow the project’s focus, the department focused on access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Transportation, affordability and knowledge of how to prepare fresh produce were common barriers to food access in the neighborhoods.

Department of Health staff began the project by interviewing key informants such as pastors and principals from the seven neighborhoods. Staff then assembled focus groups in each target area and analyzed transcripts from the discussions to find themes. A door-to-door survey along with recorded personal narratives and photos from residents provided project leaders with the input they needed to move forward in identifying possible solutions. The personal narratives were recorded with the help of students from New College of Florida.

Rubonia’s focus group, for example, centered on a lack of accessible and affordable options for fresh foods. Residents wanted to see more community gardens and an increase in affordable and conveniently located produce through farm stands that have low prices or accept electronic benefits transfer cards. The desire for cooking and meal-planning classes came out of the Samoset, East Bradenton and Pride Park groups.

After the surveys and personal narratives were finished, the Manasota Food Action Council was born to implement the findings from both Manatee and Sarasota counties. Dr. Rebecca Moreland is a member of the council and also a volunteer with Manatee County Florida Master Gardener. The Master Gardener program is supported by the University of Florida/Manatee County Extension Service.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provided another associate to the department, Amber Mills, to assist with implementation through the council. NACCHO designated the Manatee-Sarasota study as a 2016 Model Practice for other communities to use “due to its value as an innovative, comprehensive, low-cost data collection tool,” Jourdan said.

Moreland and the Master Gardeners provided Rubonia residents with plant-a-pails, or five-gallon buckets for growing vegetables. The buckets are water-regulating systems that help novice gardeners prevent over- and under-watering plants.

“We have done three in Rubonia and have been back to visit to find out if people are growing things,” Moreland said. “They’re growing collards and the leaves are twice the size of your two palms together.” Rubonia residents’ tomato plants have also taken off, Moreland said, and some of the plants have 25 or more tomatoes growing. The residents have seeds and were taught how to assemble the pails, so as one crop finishes another can begin.

The council is working on bringing farmers markets to the seven neighborhoods as well as working with local produce farmers to figure out the best way to deliver quality produce to food desert areas. They’re formulating classes to respond to residents’ requests for food education and the Department of Health-Manatee has developed a pilot community garden complete with butterfly gardens and fruit trees. It will open to community members this fall.

“In the longer term, DOH-Manatee is working with county and municipal officials to provide technical assistance on the health impact of zoning ordinances and planning decisions,” Jourdan said. “For instance, what is the health impact of allowing residents to grow and sell vegetables in their own neighborhoods?”

Last year, Geraldson Community Farm, a local farm that grows organic produce, obtained a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the Department of Health-Manatee to retrofit, design and launch a mobile market. Produce stands in food desert areas are not often a lucrative venture for farmers because of low foot traffic, Laird said during her Tuesday presentation, so the mobile market is a viable solution.

Diana Shoemaker, executive director of Manatee County Habitat for Humanity, said she believes the Manasota Food Action Council and all of the community agencies involved in the project are moving in the right direction. Shoemaker and her organization provided volunteer hours to gut an Airstream trailer for Geraldson’s mobile market.

“If we can build food access solutions around economic opportunities, then we have ownership, stability and longevity,” Shoemaker said.

Janelle O’Dea: 941-745-7095, @jayohday

Manatee County Healthy Food Access data

Additional data from the DOH-Manatee project indicates what residents need to address food-access issues

  • 54 percent said they are most interested in learning more about vegetable gardening
  • 57 percent indicated interest in shopping at a farm stand
  • 40 percent favored a farm stand that is open on weekends
  • 32 percent would like to grow vegetables in a community garden

Florida Department of Health Manatee County Healthy Food Access project data