Instead of candied grass, there’d be lawns lined with fresh vegetables.
In the place of chocolate fountains, ripe fruits ready to be plucked would hang from trees in the downtown square.
It was exactly that vision that inspired Kaycin Nickerson to start Eat Up Ocala, a non-profit organization that plants free community gardens with the intent to make Ocala edible.
Nickerson, president of Eat Up Ocala, said this concept could not only help people in local economies thrive and save money, but also teach people how to harvest the earth.
“So many people spend so much money on everything… we’re the only species that has to pay to live here,” she said. “If we trusted our earth and allowed it to give us what we’re supposed to take from it naturally, then we wouldn’t have to pay corporations to do that for us.”
The organization, which was created October 2012, has two participants: The Lime Cabinet, a local shop that is growing a lime tree, and Penn Flooring of Ocala, which has planted blueberries, strawberries, fig and peach trees, and herbs.
While community gardens and edible landscape projects are popping up all over the United States, Brian Stanton, director of development and community outreach for the Edible Plant Project in Gainesville, said the idea isn’t new.
“The concept has been around for years. Now it’s just more in popular mind so there’s been a progression,” he said. “There are very strong networks of this in places like Tampa, Orlando, Naples, Tallahassee – it’s all over.”
Nickerson said that because food safety has become such an issue, edible landscapes and community gardens could help put consumers’ minds at ease.
“Right now, we can’t really trust any food made by corporations,” she said. “We’re finding out that it’s a really scary system.”
Chris Brack, Eat Up Ocala’s marketing director, agreed that food safety has become compromised and said community gardens can help people regulate what they eat.
“Our main focus is to get people to start taking control of their own food supply,” he said. “The control of our food is resting in fewer and fewer hands that are way up the totem pole with different agendas than providing good, healthy meals for our families.”
Nicole Lebeau, spokeswoman for Sweetbay Supermarket, said as far as food safety goes, it all depends on the corporation. Sweetbay buys from reputable suppliers who they know will deliver and grow safe food for their consumers, she said.
“Food safety is obviously important to us since we are serving the public and the customers — it’s a huge priority with us,” she said. “For example, in our produce departments, we know where every item comes from. We can trace it back to the farm or the grove.”
Publix said it tries to operate the same way.
“Our stores are audited on a quarterly basis by an independent third party firm to review their food safety practices,” spokesman Dwaine Stevens wrote in a statement. “Any necessary retraining or education of associates is applied to maintain the safety of the products we provide.”
Marilyn Swisher, graduate coordinator for the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences at the University of Florida, said community gardens and edible landscapes might be part of the solution food safety issues.
“I think it’s worth trying in varied ways and in different places,” she said. “If anything, it is an opportunity for some good, solid, hardcore evaluation to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and ways to make things that show promise better.”
For now, Eat Up Ocala is focusing on getting the community involved so it can spread its project to other regions.
Vice president of Eat Up Ocala Katrina Ganzler said the goal is to continue to promote forward-thinking ideas about food supply and further the concept of edible cities.
“People are catching on because it’s so innovative and different,” she said. “Soon, we hope to have chapters and expand – Eat Up Ocala, to Eat Up Florida, to Eat Up America. We want to paint the town with fruits, vegetables and earth.”