Miami-Dade School Board to vote on turning vacant land to community gardens

Located in a city where nearly half of all school-aged children have been estimated to be obese, the chain-link fence at Twin Lakes Elementary wasn’t helping anyone in Hialeah with their diet. It was merely a fence.

And then someone planted a seed that grew into a vine that climbed ever-so-slowly across the steel links, producing passion fruit and attracting caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Nearby, in a courtyard that was once off-limits to students, lies a garden where bok choy, collard greens, chives, and other fruits, herbs and vegetables grow.

“We have all this land at the school that before was grass and now it’s a classroom. It feeds the school,” said Eduardo Recinos, an art teacher who leads Twin Lakes’ garden program. “The fence now is teaching about butterflies, where it used to just be a fence.”

For years, Miami-Dade schools have partnered with non-profits to build edible gardens as teaching tools at schools, like The Education Fund’s Plant a Thousand Gardens program at Twin Lakes. Increasingly, these gardens are used to influence eating habits inside schools and out.

And now, the school district is looking to move one step further by growing organic community gardens on vacant and underutilized school board properties. On Wednesday, board members are expected to vote on a proposal to allow the non-profit Rescue Earth to lease a vacant lot at 541 SW Fourth Ave. in Miami, where the organization wants to grow produce like bananas and broccoli.

The site is one of 11 from Northwest Dade to Homestead eyed by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho as future community gardens, and among hundreds more that could follow if the first ventures prove successful. Interest, however, has been tepid so far, with only three organizations responding out of about 75 contacted, and talks with two of the three hitting snags over soil testing.

“We’ve never done this before and we want to take an appropriate bite. So we’re going to start with 12 sites, see how they work and then rapidly, depending on the results, scale it up,” Carvalho said in an interview last week. “It’s done in Homestead. It can be done right here, particularly in areas that represent significant deserts in terms of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Many of the potential garden sites are located in or around areas identified a few years ago by the Department of Health in a study of the correlation between income, mortality and availability of fresh produce. While some researchers contest there is no link between access to vegetables and obesity, Health Department Administrator Lillian Rivera wrote that the report was a “blueprint” for addressing so-called food deserts and obesity.

Carvalho said he came up with the idea to partner with non-profits on community gardens months ago after passing by the Little Haiti Community Garden on Northeast Second Avenue, and seeing the school garden at Frederick Douglass Elementary. He said he realized how many vacant properties and how much unused space exists in the school district’s portfolio of properties, and how much need there is for fresh produce.

‘The school district has a lot of dead space,” said Jose Rivas, the founder of Rescue Earth, which introduced a community garden at the Miami Rescue Mission. “Not only are we going to do good and educate the kids in eating properly and in working in the garden, I believe we will create green jobs.”

The proposal before the board will also allow Carvalho to seek interest from other community organizations, and continue negotiations for two inner-city Miami sites with non-profits Urban GreenWorks and Art of Cultural Evolution, though they are at odds over testing for contaminants in the soil.

Jim Torrens, chief of facilities for the school district, said soil testing would potentially open the district up to liability if indeed the soil needs remediation. That’s why he said the district wants raised garden beds, to be used with imported soil.

“By using raised planting beds you eliminate any issues of existing soil,” he said.

In an email to the district, however, the heads of the two non-profits wrote that they can’t “morally agree to move forward” without first seeing if soil on the property needs remediation, which they called a standard procedure.

“Even if food is grown in raised beds, contaminants are not only ingested through plants, but also through inhalation of dust,” they wrote

Still, while Torrens said the district hasn’t necessarily conducted full soil testing on every site, Carvalho said last week that the district has only sought to create gardens on sites that have been confirmed safe.