ST. PETERSBURG — Three VIPs at Sunday’s Farmraiser charity dinner cooed over their drool-worthy plates of tapas, unapologetically letting green icing coat their mouths as they talked about the flavors and textures of their homemade cupcakes, plus watermelon and radish wraps and sweet cucumbers.
For $65 a ticket, and with Parkshore Grill executive chef Tyson Grant at the helm, incredible food was expected.
However, these connoisseurs were 10 years old, and the food they marveled over came from their own elementary school garden.
“You get buggy and dirty, but when you’re done you feel so good about yourself,” said Noah Estevez-Curtis, a fifth-grader at Bay Vista Elementary School. “You’ve done all that work, and when you’re done it’s cool to see how you made those vegetables. It was just, like, a field of grass, and now it’s this big, living thing.”
Sandwiched between the Mahaffey Theater and the Dalí Museum, Farmraiser 2013 was not the typical black-tie affair. The first major fundraising event for The Edible Peace Patch Project, the dinner drew nearly 200 participants who came to learn about and donate to the small gardens sprouting up in struggling south St. Petersburg elementary schools. The fruits and vegetables that Grant turned into haute cuisine were grown in the students’ school gardens.
Noah’s father, Kip Curtis, calls himself a “recovering academic” who founded the Edible Peace Patch Project in 2009 at the urging of college students who wanted to work with children.
The former environmental sciences professor at Eckerd College started with a small school garden at Lakewood Elementary in south St. Petersburg, which Noah used to attend.
So far, the nonprofit has planted gardens at Campbell Park, Maximo and James B. Sanderlin pre-K-8 International Baccalaureate elementaries — all Title 1 schools where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
About 500 elementary students work in the gardens 14 weeks out of the school year with 40 college students who not only become teachers but mentors.
“There’s a huge correlation between what you eat and how you behave, how much you pay attention and how you feel about yourself,” Curtis said. “My dream is that this becomes a national model for addressing the race, poverty, social issues that just nag us as a society.”
Money raised at the Farmraiser will help Curtis plant more gardens. It also will go to a $3 million community garden that will provide food for the eight schools that have partnered with the Edible Peace Patch, providing locally grown food to about 5,000 children 198 days a year.
A 15-acre tract at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 32nd Avenue South could house the sustainable urban farm, where college students could earn credit for spending a semester working on the farm.
Schoolchildren would have classes and field trips, and youthful offenders and high school dropouts could learn job skills and work toward GEDs.
The results so far have been “phenomenal,” Curtis said, with some schools reporting higher test scores in math, science and reading, and better behavior.
Students from Eckerd, USF St. Petersburg and other universities teach science, mentor and encourage kids to stay in school.
Curtis’ dreams are what schools need to keep students engaged, said Sanderlin principal Denise Miller. From understanding sustainability to developing group skills, in just two years the garden has become “absolutely essential” to the school.
“The kids dig it out of the ground, and it goes right into their mouths, and their eyes just light up with this sense of accomplishment,” Miller said.
As of Sunday’s Farmraiser, seven families, individuals and groups pledged to donate $5,000 each.
Curtis said he would like to raise $100,000 by the end of the year.