For years the lot at the intersection of Martin Luther King and South Bacher Street in Bunnell was a propane farm that serviced the area’s housing authority tenants. The tanks were removed when the authority converted to natural gas, leaving behind the tanks’ concrete “cradles” that, to less knowing eyes, looked like gravestones. The lot was considered a brownfield—a zone that may or may not have been contaminated by its previous use, but also a zone that qualified for rejuvenation through a federal Environmental Protection Agency grant.
Flagler County’s economic development department secured one such $600,000 brownfield grant about three years ago. Earlier this year it connected with the housing authority and the Flagler County Health Department to explore converting the lot into a more useful plot of land—namely, a community vegetable garden similar to one across the street that helps feed dozens of tenants. The idea then filtered into the schools, including Flagler Palm Coast High School, Buddy Taylor Middle and Bunnell Elementary, whose students got to work.
Using about $34,000 of the larger grant, local agencies and businesses excavated the site, the health department analyzed the locations soil to ensure it was safe for planting, students and housing authority tenants built the grounds with planting boxes, and Monday morning, the garden was planted to acclaim and cheers from county, school, Bunnell and housing authority officials.
“What’s kind of neat is the school’s involvement with the project because we have every level represented—middle, high school and elementary,” Superintendent Jacob Oliva said, pointing to the three dozen-odd students bused in for the occasion, among them his daughter Maddie, who attends Bunnell Elementary and who’s been involved in the project. “I know firsthand we had some of our elementary folks out here donating their time on weekends to help prepare the garden. It ties back in to sustainability.” On a recent Saturday when students were working on the garden local residents came out to volunteer their time. “It ties into the community and turned into a grassroots effort where everybody got involved,” Oliva said.
The cooperation was broad and varied. The students at Buddy Taylor Middle School’s agronomy flagship germinated the plants, replanted them and provided the signs. Students at the FPC’s tech academy provided a vegetable planting plan. Students at Bunnell Elementary provided labor and moved the topsoil. The University of Florida’s Ag Extension Service provided a $500 grant for seeds and materials, plus technical advice, and the Flagler County Health Department was involved in ensuring that the site was clear of contaminants for planting. Several local businesses contributed as well: Environmental Land Services excavated the site of its concrete cradles for the old propane tanks and Rock Excavating of Palm Coast donated topsoil for the beds, and Builders First Source donated lumber and made the planting beds.
“So a lot of collaboration has come together for this,” County Commissioner Barbara Revels said.
“The kids made all of this happen,” Katrina Austin of the county’s economic development department said. “We had children who were shoveling and helping put boxes together, growing the plants, cultivating, nurturing, loving the plants. Today they’re going to go ahead and move those plants into the boxes. That relationship they had with the tenants and the men’s group and the gardening club and the housing authority, it’s just incredible to see them work together, and that partnership is starting at such an early age. It’s going to benefit us all in the future, so I’m very excited just to be able to watch these students and see how they can enhance our economic situation in the future.”
Donations aside, the majority of the $34,000-some grant dollars were spent on analyzing the site and putting together a health and safety plan, with an education campaign provided by the health department, Helga van Eckert, director of the county’s economic development department, said. “Part of the grant has a community outreach and health component to it,” Van Eckert said, “so since this area was included in the economic enhancement district, we were able to do the site assessment and then we started working with the health department and we wanted to identify communities in need or areas that we could help make a difference from a health and safety perspective.”
The ribbon-cutting over, students got busy transferring the plants they’d grown in their schools to the garden’s beds. The garden subsequently will be run by the housing authority’s tenants association, Susan Gipson of the association said. The association runs a smaller such garden across the street. “The tenants who participate in the garden, they’re the ones who reap the harvest and give to the handicapped, disabled or seniors,” Gipson said. The new garden will be producing much more, so the overflow will go to a local food bank. The smaller garden could feed 50 to 60 people, since the greens come back within weeks of being harvested. The hope is that the students stay engaged, conduct field trips, and return when it’s time for planting next year.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to do that community outreach and give back,” Buddy Taylor Middle School Principal Nathan Lovelette said, “because teachers preach that a lot with the kids, sometimes it’s not always about receiving it’s about giving and participating in the community around you.”