One man’s passion teaches about food, brings community together

By Ashley Wermick |

In May 2009, a patch of land on the side of a park was outlined and measured. Final plans were discussed. Although it was just a flat strip of land between a soccer field and a row of houses, it would soon become much more.

Cash McVay’s vision was becoming a reality.

“I wanted to create a place that offers a chance for neighbors to interact socially,” McVay said. “A place for cross-generational and cross-cultural connections.”

McVay is one of the directors of CitySprout, an organization dedicated to promoting and raising funds for community gardens in St. Augustine. The first garden created with the organization’s help is at the Eddie L. Vickers Recreational Facility in Lincolnville.

After receiving unanimous approval from the St. Augustine City Commission, the concept created by McVay and his wife Maribel Angel through CitySprout was put under another nonprofit entity—Lincolnville Community Garden Inc.

Horticulturist Kevin Lang designed the layout for the community garden. She designed the blueprint with 20 raised wooden boxes, which are used for planting, as well as space for a fruit tree grove and room for visitors and volunteers to help and interact.

“I wanted to create a space that would not only look simple and clean, but a space that would be easy to garden in and maneuver around,” Lang said.

Although the city granted the garden a plot roughly the size of a football field, only half of the land is currently used.

“This is the first year we’re doing this,” Lang said. “We didn’t want to do too much, too soon. After we get the groundwork in we will most definitely be expanding.”

After the final plans were discussed, McVay, Lang and other volunteers roped off the land. The area was filled with dirt, then, using materials donated from local businesses a fence was built around the parameter. Irrigation lines were installed and the garden boxes, made of non-toxic wood, were constructed by October 2009. The group met every Sunday afternoon to complete the projects and still continue to do so today.

Contractor Harold Lock donated his time to install the irrigation and build the garden boxes. He is now a regular volunteer at the community garden.

“I did it because I grew up on a farm,” Lock said. “Gardening is something I’ve always enjoyed and it’s nice to see others enjoying it too.”

All McVay and the others had to do was wait for planting season to begin.

By the end of February small tufts of green were peeking through the dirt at the community garden. McVay and other volunteers had also planted the beginnings of an “edible grove” consisting of fig, citrus and kumquat trees.

“Things are looking great, aren’t they?” McVay said, as he pushed a wheelbarrow full of sod across the garden. He stopped to gesture at a straight row of tiny plants, no more than 6 inches tall. “I’m really excited about these blueberry bushes.”

Lock said he cannot believe the community outpouring for the project.

“Almost everything here has been donated or given to us at a heavily discounted price,” Lock said. “Local tree trimming companies give us free mulch and the horse stables donate manure. I guess we’re sort of cleaning up the city in a way too.”

People walk around the garden and strike up conversations with strangers. They are all there for a common purpose.

“The turnout is really great this week,” McVay said. “Everyone that comes by is really interested in what’s going on.”

Other than a place for the community to interact, McVay wanted to raise awareness about where food comes from.

“I hope to create more of a connection between the local farmers and the residents,” McVay said. “This in turn will lead to a reduction of the amount of fossil fuels needed to push food around.”

The community garden is part of what is known as the slow food movement, which emphasizes eating locally grown foods and being aware of where food is produced. Although St. Augustine is small, it has a network of community supported agriculture.

Richard Villadoniga is the leader of Slow Food First Coast, the local chapter of an international nonprofit organization created in response to the “fast-fooding” of society. His mission is to promote the food system by connecting residents with local farmers and educating the public about eating local and seasonal produce.

“People have become so used to getting whatever food they want, whenever they want,” Villadoniga said. “They buy out of season, so the produce is shipped from who knows where and the taste that you get from fresh produce just isn’t there”

Michael McMillan is the owner and chef of Opus 39, which has a menu that changes daily based on seasonal produce and other foods he finds locally. McMillan says the taste is better because locally grown produce is not harvested and packed before the peak of freshness.

One of the stands McMillan visits at the Old City Farmer’s Market is owned by Jane Jennette, who runs S & J Farms with her husband, Sid Jennette. Jennette said she only sells produce that is harvested within three days of the market.

“This produce isn’t sitting around in a warehouse for a few weeks before being shipped out,” Jennette said, pointing to carrots still dusted with dirt. “Look how fresh it is!”

McMillan loads his van with cardboard boxes filled with the carrots, as well as dew-soaked kale, arugula and spinach. He slides the door shut and heads to Opus 39 to prepare the day’s menu.

“It’s not an easy way to run a business, but it’s a much more creative way,” McMillan said. “It’s also better financially. I’m paying $100 for produce at the farmer’s market that would cost three or four times that amount from a distributor.”

Barbara Blonder, associate professor of natural sciences at Flagler College, said there are a number of reasons to eat locally produced food.

“When you buy food locally from farmers, you’re bringing your dollars back into your local economy,” Blonder said.

According to the web site, for every dollar spent on produce in supermarkets, only 9 cents goes to the farmer.

Jennifer Yale works at Diane’s Natural Food Store in St. Augustine. She also advocates for eating sustainably. She believes that it is important to eat locally produced food to support the local economy. Yale also eats sustainable food because of the health benefits.

“People don’t realize how much healthier it is to eat locally grown food,” Yale said. “For example, lettuce loses half of its nutrients 30 minutes after being picked. The sooner the food gets to your plate, the more nutrients you receive.”

Another issue with non-sustainable food is the distance it travels.

“Every time you don’t have to count on a truck to transport your food across the country, or a plane to fly it or even a boat to ship it is good for the environment,” Blonder said. “You aren’t using as many fossil fuels and you are reducing your overall environmental footprint.”

According to the Institute of Science in Society, 17 percent of petroleum demand in the United States is for the food production industry.
“It’s crazy getting tomatoes from California, lettuce from who knows where and trekking it from 3,000 miles away,” McVay said. “Fossil fuel isn’t going to be around forever and we have to find new solutions and broaden people’s minds.”

McVay lives in a cozy purple house in Lincolnville, near Lake Maria Sanchez. He is building his wife a studio for her artwork in their backyard, but pauses and glances over to the back corner. There is small raised box, similar to the ones in the community garden.

“I try to eat as much sustainable food as possible,” McVay said. “I have my own garden and go to the farmer’s market, but sometimes I do have to stop at Publix. I’m trying to wean myself off corporate food and be solely provided with what we grow.”

The community garden also houses a 900-square foot covered pavilion. It will soon become an open-air classroom for the benefits of eating locally and showing children how produce is grown.

“My biggest concern is that children today aren’t aware of where food comes from,” Lock said. “In their mind, food comes from Winn-Dixie.”

Kristin Adamczyk works at the Present Moment Café, which serves organic, unprocessed vegan and vegetarian foods. She also volunteers at the garden and echoed Lock’s statement.

“I volunteer with children and you’d be surprised how many kids think pizza is a plant or that spaghetti grows on trees,” Adamczyk said. “It’s sad and kind of disturbing.”

Adamczyk will teach a children’s summer camp with a focus on healthy lifestyles.

“One week will be spent in the community garden,” Adamczyk said. “We’re going to use the pavilion and give them their own seeds to sprout. This will be great for them.”

In addition to Slow Food First Coast, Villadoniga is a middle school teacher. His mission is to teach every student where food comes from. Villadoniga is working on a farm-to-school program to educate students and to grow food for school cafeterias.

“It’s in the very early stages right now,” Villadoniga said. “I am looking at community gardens like the one in Lincolnville for guidance on how I should approach this project.”

At the beginning of April the garden looked like it had taken on a mind of its own. Bright bunches of green contrast against the dark brown earth. The plants are so big that they have outgrown the raised boxes. One box has so much lettuce that it spills out on the sides. Another has tomato plants which have outgrown their protective wire covering.

“This just happened within the last week or so,” McVay said. “It’s amazing how fast everything has greened up. Joan was just telling me how everything looks like it’s coming together.”

Joan Shannon, a retiree, has a slight build, and is watering the citrus trees, which have doubled in size over the last month.

“They have me doing the hard job,” she said with a smile.

Shannon is a longtime resident of Lincolnville and volunteers at the garden whenever she can.

“The garden is helping the community so much,” Shannon said. “Things are 200 percent better than when I moved here 20 years ago.”

Shannon moves the hose to a new tree, and then looks over her shoulder.

“Cash is such a dynamo,” Shannon said. “Look at everything he’s done.”

McVay walks around the garden, asking the volunteers how their day is or whether they need help. He is met with clasps on the shoulder or a grateful smile.

An older couple works together to plant a tomato seedling and children laugh as they weave through the garden boxes.

A man further back in the garden carefully picks lettuce and herbs out of a garden box and tucks them into the basket of his bicycle, gathering ingredients for a salad.

Two women wander into the garden from the park. McVay answers their questions and soon the women ask what they can do to help.

McVay wanted to create a place for community interaction. A place for people to grow their own food. A place to educate the public on the importance of local agriculture.

“I want this garden to inspire others to do the same for their community,” McVay said. “And who knows, maybe we can expand into other parts of St. Augustine.”

McVay notices three men working in the corner and immediately picks up a shovel to help them transport fertilizer to another part of the garden.

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