A recent partnership between the South County campus of Hillsborough Community College and the Good Samaritan Mission in Wimauma is helping area residents get healthy.
In just one semester, approximately 300 pounds of fresh produce grown at the college has been donated to the mission.
Good Samaritan’s Executive Director Bill Cruz said that’s helping many families ward off disease.
“I was very surprised when I looked at the major causes of deaths of Latinos because hunger wasn’t on it,” Cruz said in a recent interview. “Instead, we saw diseases impacted by obesity, like heart disease and diabetes.”
Since most of the people he and his wife Theresa and their staff at the mission serve are Hispanic farm workers, he knew there had to be a way they could impact the health of that population by changing what they made available to them to eat.
Looking at the donated food bags the mission was providing, Cruz realized they were contributing to the problem.
“They were filled with starchy canned foods,” he said. But it was the kind of food they were used to, mostly beans and rice and potato-based meals. “Somehow, we wanted to help the people to eat healthier.”
Right around the same time that Cruz was thinking about changing what food was made available to people who take classes and worship at the mission, a group at Hillsborough Community College was checking out local charities so it could decide who would be the recipient of produce grown in its hydroponic garden.
The garden had been started as a joint project between the literature and science classes, by students of professor of English Karen Boosinger, who also acts as advisor to the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and science professor James MacNeil.
Hydroponics is a way of gardening, growing plants in towers of water without soil.
After touring several area facilities that distribute food to the needy, students chose Good Samaritan Mission as the recipient of the vegetables that would be grown.
“But we knew it would only be a one-time project unless we got a grant to sustain it,” Boosinger said. “My students took the project and ran with it.”
Two members of Phi Theta Kappa, Karen Lewendowski and Nicole Schuyler, took the lead in the project, and Lewendowski wrote the grant.
According to Lewendowski, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the Florida Department of Agriculture for grants, and they were supposed to be awarded $5,000.
“But because of the point system they used and the number of grants that were approved, we actually received $3,450,” she said. Then the college matched those funds.
After getting the approval of the recipient from campus president Allen Witt, the college approached the mission, Boosinger said.
“It was a God thing,” said Cruz. “It came right when we were wondering how we could get the people to eat better.”
Because they would now be getting fresh vegetables, cold storage was needed, and a walk-in cooler was donated by the Sun City Center Interfaith Council.
The first vegetables began to come in May, when the college held an official “lettuce cutting” which was explained as “a gardening version of a business’s ribbon cutting.”
MacNeil said he has been tending the garden himself since school let out.
“On average, I’ve been taking the mission about four 40-pound banana boxes a week,” MacNeil said. Since some vegetables are counted in pounds and others in gallons or bushels, MacNeil said it was hard to get an exact figure of what has been donated but it is already around 300 pounds, most of which has been in various kinds of lettuces, Swiss chard, pole beans, and cilantro. Tomatoes are now starting to produce as well.
“We were fortunate to have John Lawson of Hydroharvest Farms in Ruskin as a consultant,” MacNeil said.
The advantage to hydroponics is that small spaces can produce a lot of plants and the college’s garden is growing well. It currently has 36 towers with 18 pots on a tower, and everything is green and full.
MacNeil said he is looking forward to the time when the Phi Theta Kappa students return to class. “I have been looking after it (the garden) myself with a small stipend from the school. It’s a lot of work.”
MacNeil said what’s planted from now on will be decided by how well things grow and what the mission needs.