Robin Clemmons rips apart a pod of black beans, demonstrating that not many people may realize where crops, like black beans, actually come from. These bean pods need to be dried before volunteers can shell them by hand — in a days work, it's tricky to fill a plastic shopping bag. (Carter Weinhofer/Eckerd College)
On a cool October morning in the heart of South St. Petersburg, Florida, Robin Clemmons is nowhere to be found inside Daystar Life Center. A line of people accrues outside – people wait for their turn at the front table of the food pantry. Once they’re up, they can tell the volunteer about any health conditions they have that may eliminate certain food options for them.
Clemmons isn’t in the pantry, either. She isn’t among the shelves of donated food items, diapers, feminine hygiene products, paper products, and dog food, nor between the racks of clothing. Other volunteers hurry through the donation area, picking out the items requested. Next month, they are hopeful they can return to their pre-COVID model: allowing the people to come into the building themselves and pick out what they want.
Through the backdoor, past the parking lot, Clemmons is shoveling compost with one of her Thursday volunteers. It’s an essential part of their closed loop, regenerative farming practice. The approximately 1,000 square feet of soil in Daystar’s Edible Garden is made entirely of the compost. The city donates seagrass scraped off of boat ramps, and coffee grounds and shrimp shells are donated from local companies, all for the compost.
Down the line of crops, you can find papayas, okra, mustard greens, basil, and more. At the end of the line are juvenile avocado trees and a Jamaican cherry tree. Clemmons searches the whole tree for one cherry, which tastes exactly like cotton candy. Once the avocado trees are fully-grown, Clemmons hopes they can provide adequate shade for the bus stop that a majority of their visitors take to travel to Daystar. For some, it’s an all-day affair just to get here, since the bus comes by so infrequently, according to Clemmons.
The edge of the farm, marked by the avocado trees, sits directly next to a major road, across from an on-ramp of Interstate 275, one of the largest in Florida. Daystar sits in the heart of South St. Petersburg – a food desert or, as Clemmons describes it, "a services and food desert.”
Scarcity and supply
“Food desert” is a complicated term, but the FAO defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to food is restricted or non-existent due to the absence or low density of ‘food-entry points’ within a practical traveling distance.”
This plays a significant role in the ongoing issue of food insecurity, a complicated and multi-faceted problem. According to Feeding Tampa Bay, approximately 194,514 people in Pinellas County, Fla., are unable to reliably purchase nutritious food. Given that nearly 1 million people live in Pinellas County, this means close to 20% of people within the county are food insecure.
On a national scale, about 10.2% of people in the United States were food insecure in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Studying these issues are people like David Himmelfarb, instructor and internship coordinator at Eckerd College. He teaches classes such as Food Movements and Food & Sustainability and holds a position on the Farm Advisory Committee for the college’s community farm.
Himmelfarb said he became interested in food at a young age, noting that it always seemed to be the central bond among his family.
“Food brings people together,” Himmelfarb said.
This interest developed in a greater appreciation for cultural and biological diversity, leading to a career in anthropology. Research in places such as Papua New Guinea has led Himmelfarb to even more insights about food movements.
“I started really thinking about the ways that people establish communities and strengthen their communities through the exchange of food,” Himmelfarb said.
But food security is a complex issue, and this is something on which Himmelfarb and Clemmons both agree. According to Himmelfarb, you can’t just put grocery stores into food deserts.
“That perspective is leaving a lot of things out,” he said. “That doesn’t address the fundamental issues of wage stagnation and lack of economic opportunities that make it such that even if the food is around the street from you, you can’t access it because you can’t afford it.”
The cultural, social, and economic aspects of the issue of food security are all intertwined – leaving out or focusing on only one will inevitably have consequences. You can’t address one without the other, according to Himmelfarb.
But, he said, a more conscious effort in making food a focus in our daily lives can help raise awareness.
“I think it’s important for people to understand and get more involved in the production side of things,” he said. “You don’t need to go out and be a farmer, but if you come out to the farm and help out and see how things grow, you start to understand the choices that farmers are making.”
Providing "the good stuff"
Large organizations and long-term food social movements are key in creating a more just and adequate food system. But, small-scale, community-based farms like the Eckerd College Community Farm or The Edible Garden at Daystar Life Center can help support institutional sustainability over the long term. These small steps help drive the social movements or larger organizations necessary in enacting change.
“Food justice is a whole big wheel and I’m just on one spoke of it,” Clemmons said.
Clemmons and the volunteers at Daystar Life Center make these strides towards educating people about the importance of food.
“What you eat is everything,” Clemmons said.
During peak growing seasons, the center hosts practical cooking classes to show people who are receiving goods what they can do with the produce. They explain the health benefits of crops such as collard greens, mustard greens and Swiss chard, and then demonstrate easy-to-make meals, some that can be made with just a hot plate.
They hand out infographics about spices and herbs, and label the crops. As people in need line up to receive donations, they can see the crops growing in the raised beds along the sidewalk and, with these recipes and classes, can get an idea of what to actually use them for.
Janine Duffy, who has been a regular volunteer with Clemmons for just over a year and a half, emphasized the practical cooking classes as something that sets Daystar apart from other organizations.
Duffy also described how the garden at Daystar provides fresh produce that can be essential to people’s lives. She recalled how impactful these fresh greens can be to people’s lives, especially people with chronic illnesses. According to her, people have come in to receive okra as a staple in their diet for diabetes and have used greens for juices during cancer treatment.
“People line up when it's harvest season,” Duffy said. “We will bag pounds and pounds of greens that people can utilize instead of eating processed foods.”
The Edible Garden at Daystar has only been in production for three years. The first year produced 600 pounds of vegetables, the second year 1,400 pounds. As of October 2022, the garden has produced around 1,700 pounds. Clemmons said she hoped to hit the milestone of producing an actual ton of vegetables, or 2,000 pounds.
For Clemmons, it’s more than just the numbers, though.
“I wanted to focus on getting the best food to food pantries, because they always get second-best,” Clemmons said. “I want to grow the good stuff for the people who may not have access."