LAKE WALES, Fla. — At Roosevelt Academy, horticulture teacher Ray Cruze’s class is growing enough vegetables to sell to local restaurants and at a local market, in part thanks to a partnership between Bok Tower Gardens and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
The partnership between the state’s preeminent land-grant university and the historic garden officially launched in January, and now schools are busy planting vegetables after receiving grants, and residents are learning how to organize their own community gardens.
“This partnership shows what is possible when we work collaboratively to help our young people and residents understand where their food comes from and how this is connected to what we see on our plates. It is also about the importance of plants, trees and water in our environment,” said Nick Place, UF dean and director for Extension. “We are looking forward to great success in the Central Florida area and then expanding this program throughout the state to bring our combined message of food systems education to all Floridians.”
UF/IFAS Extension and Bok Tower Gardens are offering programs to empower local communities to lead healthier lives and ensure responsible environmental stewardship. For example, the school and community garden initiatives foster improved awareness of the importance of plants and support garden-related projects that enhance schools and community organizations.
A key part of this initiative is the provision of mini-grants for school and community gardens, along with training and other resources to support them. The program provides tools that will help yield success and create a network of like-minded peers who are working on similar projects.
“Growing food is basic to our wellbeing, and our partnership program with UF/IFAS is already helping connect participants with good nutrition on a regional level,” said David Price, president of Bok Tower Gardens. “Children are learning about responsibility, teamwork, stewardship, self-sufficiency, and science while growing vegetables at their schools. Neighborhood gardens provide healthy food and a point of cooperation, creating stronger communities. It’s a win-win.”
Erin Elsberry is an Extension agent overseeing the school program, which is in its second round of grant funding.
“Some schools are just getting started – they might have a plot of land,” Elsberry said. “And then you’ve got school programs that want to take it to the next level with aquaponics and hydroponics, along with alternative gardening methods.”
Roosevelt Academy is a ‘saving grace’ of many special education students in Lake Wales, who find that they do not fit into a regular school climate. In addition to core subjects like English, math and science, Roosevelt incorporates employable skills into the behavior management program so students graduate with the tools necessary to lead a self-supporting and fulfilling life. One of those programs is agriculture.
Ray Cruze teaches horticulture at Roosevelt and, in the last 20 years, has developed six commercial greenhouses, producing annuals, herbs, shrubs, trees and hanging baskets. The plants are sold locally to retailers, landscape contractors and municipalities.
Row crops produced each year in the market garden include 1,600 tomatoes, 2,500 peppers, 3,000 onions and 15 varieties of herbs, among other vegetables. The vegetables are sold at the Lake Wales Care Center market and at Bok Tower’s Blue Palmetto Café. A grant from the Bok/UF partnership has allowed Cruze to add an aquaponics element to the program so they can grow fish.
“The UF/IFAS and Bok Tower Gardens grant partnership has benefited us greatly, allowing us to purchase supplies and materials needed for our new aquaponic system, designed by Morningstar Fishermen,” Cruze said. “My greatest satisfaction comes from seeing my students learn to appreciate where their food comes from and the amount of effort it takes to produce a crop.”
Felipe Garcia, a 9th-grader, said he enjoys teaching others what they learn at school.
“We have opportunities like the Earth Day Program at Bok Tower Gardens where we can demonstrate to others how we grow our crops,” Felipe said. “Selling the vegetables and herbs is fun too – we get the opportunity to meet our customers and use our communication skills to teach them about the crops we grow. It’s cool hearing a customer say they have never seen the type of lettuce or tomato we grow.”
A new facility at Bok Tower Gardens is enabling UF/IFAS Extension to expand its presence at the Gardens, and houses regional UF Extension agents, faculty and program staff, as well as Gardens education and conservation staff. UF/IFAS is planning to hire three more agents in coming months.
As part of the expansion, a new outdoor kitchen and edible garden, scheduled to be completed soon, will feature plants from harvest to table through culinary programs and chef demonstrations.
CONTACTS: Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, 352-294-3302, firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian Ososky, 863-734-1210, email@example.com
SOURCES: Nick Place, 352-392-1761, firstname.lastname@example.org
David Price, 863-734-1200, email@example.com
Susan Tyler, 863-676-1408 ext. 2267, firstname.lastname@example.org
Erin Elsberry, 863-676-1408 ext. 2267, email@example.com
Photo Caption: L-R,Students Caleb Gutierrez, Felipe Garcia, Kyra Pfingston, Alan Soule hold peppers they grew as part of Roosevelt Academy’s agricultural program.