Daytona community garden aims to be an oasis in a food desert

DAYTONA BEACH — Amber Rugh’s sister was only 31 years old when a heart attack ended her life.

Rugh said her sister smoked, and she was so strapped for cash that she ate whatever she could buy with food stamps.

“She ate so badly,” said Rugh, who lost her sister last year. “Maybe if she was able to eat better she’d still be here.”

Rugh, a 33-year-old married mother of two with limited income, has a similar struggle. Fruits and vegetables are a rare treat in her kitchen.

Now the Port Orange woman has found something she hopes will help: a community garden she’s buying into that should sprout its first organic vegetables and fruits this summer. For $25 per year, she hopes to soon have all the lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables she, her husband and grade school-age children can eat.

The garden is being created at Derbyshire Place, a faith-based community center on the north end of Daytona Beach that already helps people who live nearby with a thrift store, an array of fun and spiritual programs for children, fitness classes for senior citizens, a support group for single mothers, and wellness seminars.

The garden is being developed on a grassy piece of land on the community center’s property that in a past life was an unpaved parking lot. The uncultivated land overlooking Derbyshire Road near LPGA Boulevard will become a 100-foot by 80-foot garden. There will be a total of 48 plots, each 4 feet by 12 feet.

“It seemed pretty crazy at first,” said Derbyshire Place Executive Director Miguel Rodriguez, who knew nothing about community gardens when he started working at the center nine months ago. “I didn’t know how we were going to do it.”

Now Rodriguez has faith the garden is going to produce an abundance.

“I’m over the moon about it,” he said.

It won’t just be a dug-up piece of earth with seeds thrown into the ground in hopes edible plants will grow. There will be a garden manager to oversee things every day. And Derbyshire Place is getting expert advice from master gardeners with the University of Florida and officials with the Volusia County Health Department.

The Health Department, which is buying one of the garden plots, has looked at wellness issues in the Derbyshire neighborhood and put together a health profile for the area. The profile shows that, compared with the county and state, the neighborhood has higher rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic lower respiratory disease, lung cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. It also shows higher numbers of pre-term births, low birth weight and infant mortality rates.

“You could see the need for health services in that area,” said Jill Taufer, a public health nutritionist for the Health Department.

Taufer has been a part of the discussions on how to design the garden and make it sustainable. She said there’s been talk of renting out the garden area for anniversary and birthday parties, and holding a farmer’s market that could include outside produce vendors.

The community center will also hold events to teach people to harvest, properly clean produce, grill and cook vegetables, and try different foods.

Donations from local businesses and individuals are hoped to provide enough money for fencing, irrigation, proper gardening tools, an 8-foot by 12-foot greenhouse, a shed, and four raised gardening beds for the elderly and disabled. There will even be hydroponics used, a method of growing plants in water infused with mineral nutrient solutions rather than soil.

It’s going to take $22,000 to turn the expanse of dried out grass into a lush vegetable garden and small grove of fruit trees. About $12,000 more still needs to be raised.

Consolidated-Tomoka has donated $5,000 to get the project off the ground. The University of Florida has already donated fruit trees, and Halifax Health is paying the $3,500 bill for the fencing.

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