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A new Hillsborough County program aims to connect the community through locally grown food

A young girl wearing a green bow on her pony tail and green collared school uniform shirt with a gray sweater, smiling and presenting with her gloved hands cut broccoli. A pair of orange scissors in one hand. The background is grass and a red brick building.
Locally Grown
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A Lockhart Elementary Magnet School student recently harvesting broccoli for the lunchroom staff to prepare during lunch, as part of the a farm- to-school grant acquired by Locally Grown Inc.

We meet the leader behind Homegrown Hillsborough and local organization heads that say this program is a necessary step for the county.

A new food system program in Hillsborough County aims to educate residents and also connect local organizations already growing and distributing food. There are similar collaborations like this happening across the country.

Participating in the food system may involve a wide range of activities — from growing to composting, purchasing to cooking.

The words "market, purchase, consume, recycle, grow, deliver" shaped like a circle surrounding the center words "Homegrown Hillsborough."
Hillsborough County
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Food system graphic.

Monica Petrella, the food system program coordinator for the UF/IFAS Extension in Hillsborough County, said right now for Homegrown Hillsborough’s first year, they're collecting data through surveys to understand the need of residents and organizations.

“A lot of residents are interested in backyard composting, maybe turning their yard into an edible landscape, maybe they want to support local farmers, maybe they want to see more restaurants that source local foods, or have more food festivals, or learn more about how agriculture in Hillsborough County impacts our culture and economy, land use — things like that,” Petrella said.

“Ultimately, me and these organizations will be working on these plans that are going to be consumed by the individual, by the resident. So, organization is kind of very loosely defined. It really means just more than one person, or a person who is working on more than just themselves.”

Woman wearing sunglasses smiling, speaking to a group of people.
Monica Petrella
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Monica Petrella, food system program coordinator for the UF/IFAS Extension in Hillsborough County.

Petrella added that the goal of the program is to create a culture of community food.

"I would be willing to bet that Hillsborough County would like to see a really robust network of community gardens and community spaces where food is kind of the center point," Petrella said.

MAP: Click here to view an interactive map of community gardens in Hillsborough.

Petrella said that although it's not a good practice to completely copy another area's format, she draws inspiration from the state of Vermont where she said you "can't go anywhere without tripping into local food."

Jenna Kaczmarski, a registered dietician specializing in school nutrition and local food systems, recently co-founded a farm-to-school program called Locally Grown Inc. with Arianne Corbett.

"I think there's a lot of opportunities for the community to connect through food, and an initiative like Homegrown Hillsborough is a way for us to connect around food values,” Kaczmarski said.

In an advisory capacity, she made sure the Homegrown Hillsborough survey included a few questions about school meals.

Two women smiling outside standing next to potted plants.
Jenna Kaczmarski
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Arianne Corbett (left) and Jenna Kaczmarski (right) co-founders of Locally Grown Inc.

“Farm-to-school is a key player in a local food system, because the schools represent such a large purchasing power. If you compare them to restaurants, they're bigger than any restaurant chain,” Kaczmarski said. “So, if they are engaged in buying from local farmers and local producers, that have big impact on that local food system and supporting that effort to build that stronger, resilient local food system.”

Dhalia Bumbaca, CEO and co-founder of WellFed Community, said she sees Homegrown Hillsborough as a way to network, creating a platform to communicate in a shared space to make sure no food goes to waste.

The organization provides a mobile free market that goes to 18 different locations over the course of a month, providing over 2,500 pounds of food a week, and serving about 150 residents each week.

“I rescue thousands and thousands of pounds of food each week … but I can't really necessarily process things that might go to waste,” Bumbaca said. “And that's because there's not that infrastructure in place to support it, right? So, refrigeration facilities, community kitchens, volunteer manpower, policy.”

Bumbaca said it's really important to recognize that this work is a necessary step.

“It's proven all around the country and all around the world that we need to be thinking about our food system in this way. Otherwise, we're not innovating in one of our most basic needs, which is to be fed,” Bumbaca said.

William Schanbacher, assistant professor in USF’s Department of Religious Studies, is with the Urban Food Sovereignty Group made up of university faculty members.

He described food sovereignty as empowering people to produce, choose and consume their own culturally meaningful food.

“This allows us to promote human rights, human dignity, and our collective ability to live flourishing lives,” Schanbacher said in an email.

Schanbacher said he thinks there needs to be greater county financial support for things like entrepreneurial opportunities “for local community members to start healthy, organic and environmentally sustainable businesses related to food and agriculture.”

“At both problem and an opportunity, Hillsborough County has a lot of great things going on related to our vibrant food economy or food system, but we often work in our own silos. Homegrown Hillsborough will provide a way to connect and collaborate,” Schanbacher said.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.