With a garden planted inside a PVC pipe, a smattering of produce throughout the playground and vegetables between the library and science buildings, Cedar Key School is overrun by food, which is just what the students want.
For Cedar Key School students, growing food has become an integral part of their education and extracurricular activities. Despite the K-12 school’s small size (with only 243 students enrolled) and limited funds, Cedar Key School’s Future Farmers of America members are able to work the land in a way that conserves natural resources.
“You can honestly grow anything out of anything with almost nothing,” said Sarah Bartholemy, 17, Cedar Key School’s FFA president.
By growing gardens in creative spaces, utilizing sustainable practices such as drip irrigation and fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, Cedar Key School’s FFA chapter is able to give to the pantry every season.
Their 7-year-old FFA chapter received the Food for All grant of up to $2,500 a year in 2012 and 2013. The club now receives the Rural Youth Development grant, which supplies the school with about $6,500 because of their rural status.
The Food for All and Rural Youth Development grants have allowed them to donate over 7,000 pounds of fresh food to the Cedar Key United Methodist Church Food Pantry.
“This program is part of an initiative to fight hunger here in America through agricultural education programs and FFA chapters,” said Clay Sapp, former state and national FFA president, in an email. Sapp is an agriculture education and communication senior at the University of Florida.
The Food for All grant requires students to create a plan for producing and distributing the food, he said. Additionally, chapters that are awarded the grants must educate their community about local hunger, which is why FFA members host workshops and seminars for locals and tourists who are interested in gardening.
Bartholemy said Cedar Key’s FFA chapter recognizes the importance of teaching others to become more self-sufficient.
“It’s important to give to others, but it’s also important to teach them when you’re giving,” Bartholemy said.
Fighting hunger in Cedar Key is a mixture of awareness, donations and education, Bartholemy said.
Because it is difficult to see that a person is hungry, the chapter’s FFA adviser, Dennis Voyles, said he and his students did not realize how many Cedar Key residents went without meals. They became more invested in the program when they understood that Cedar Key residents were greatly affected by food insecurity, Voyles said.
“The more we learned, the more dedicated we became to the cause,” Voyles said.
Through their partnership with the local food pantry, which serves about 60 families each week, the chapter is able to provide large donations of fresh, healthy food.
“We’re trying hard to increase the variety and health of the food that we distribute,” said Donna Beach, a food pantry volunteer.
The club continues to make that goal possible by donating a variety of vegetables, such as lettuce, peas and turnips as well as fish like tilapia. All of these items are all grown sustainably thanks to the school’s recirculating aquaculture system. In the system, nutrients from the fish tanks are cycled to the plants, and nutrients from the crops are circulated back to the tanks.
High school senior and Cedar Key FFA vice president Taryn Epperson said the chapter also uses drip irrigation to preserve fresh water, a scarce commodity on the island.
Cedar Key School’s program tries to “help the environment and the people in equal balance,” said Epperson, 17.
The students’ dedication to their community and environmental work makes Voyles proud. Although being recognized for their work at FFA conventions is nice, seeing the impact it has on his students is even more rewarding, Voyles said.
The students are proud of one another, too.
“I think that my favorite part [of the project] is being able to see a change in the attitudes and the behavior of my fellow classmates and then the underclassmen,” Bartholemy said. “And then being able to see them grow as people.”
The FFA members will continue working with the food pantry as long as members are interested in it, Epperson said.
Beach looks forward to continuing working with the students. The food pantry’s ideals align with FFA’s — both organizations believe residents deserve access to good food.
“We don’t want to help people just live,” Beach said. “We want to help them thrive and be healthy.”
Epperson has been involved in Cedar Key School’s FFA program for the past seven years. Her involvement with Food for All project and FFA has influenced her to change her career path, switching from wanting to be a pediatrician to an agriculture teacher. She said she wants to fight hunger at the local and international level.
The teen insists that all people have the ability to make a difference in the world. Cedar Key School’s small size did not deter it from taking on a massive project.
“You can help with anything, no matter how small you are,” Epperson said.