Grow Your Dinner

Grow Your Dinner

Fleet Farming helps Floridians eat locally, right from their front yard

Words by Michelle Ferrand

When you walk into your local grocery store, it’s not surprising to find a variety of fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, avocados, carrots, and strawberries, all year long. However, more often than not, there’s nrothing local about them. But what’s the alternative—growing your own produce? For one Orlando-based nonprofit, that’s exactly the answer.

Fleet Farming is an urban agriculture program that aims to increase local food accessibility by transforming front lawns and other outside spaces into edible gardens and microfarms. The program began, partly, when Fleet Farming’s parent nonprofit, IDEAS For Us, noticed an influx of “Costco growers” at local farmers markets.

“Costco growers are people who buy from big suppliers and resell imported produce at a markup. That’s not what a farmers market is—you’re supposed to be supporting local farmers” said Caroline Chomanics, Fleet Farming’s Program Manager.

Fleet Farming began its microfarms, called Fleet Farmlettes, in the residential neighborhood of Audubon Park. By partnering with home and business owners, they converted outside spaces into thriving farmlettes that produce seasonal fruits and vegetables. Farmlette hosts are also given 20 percent of whatever produce is grown, making it the true farm-to-table experience. The rest is sold at farmers markets or included in Fleet Farming’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a weekly vegetable subscription box service that runs all year round. The CSA program also offers produce from other local farmers in the Central Florida area. 

Fleet Farming’s  small but mighty team of farmers, interns, and volunteers bike to and manage 13 farmlettes. They also host Swarm Rides, a free bimonthly event series in which community members are taught how to grow food by helping out with the farmlettes.

Teaching the community how to take a more active role when it comes to food doesn’t come without a cost. To help sustain its programs and give its farmers a livable wage, Fleet Farming started Edible Landscapes, a paid edible garden service. With Edible Landscapes, various options are offered to make it easy and manageable to grow your own food. Depending on the space, Fleet Farming can help install an aesthetically-pleasing cedar raised-bed in your front lawn, or plant food forests that host tropical fruit trees and long-term crops such as avocados and spinach. For apartment or condo dwellers, Fleet Farming also offers GreenStalk Vertical Gardens, vertical planters with 3 to 5 levels that are easy to transport and don’t require much space. Unlike Farmlette hosts, those with Edible Landscapes keep 100 percent of their food.

“The whole purpose is so we can empower people to eat from their own gardens,” said Chomanics. If anyone needs extra help, “We do offer a monthly maintenance program if they need help, as well as online resources on our website.”

An edible garden doesn’t only positively alter people’s relationship with food—it decreases the overconsumption of water and pesticides too. According to the EPA, water for landscape irrigation totals nearly nine billion gallons per day. Pesticides can be harmful to the soil, to surrounding animals, and to the general biodiversity of an area. Fleet Farming doesn’t use any synthetic pesticides or fertilizer in any of its microfarms or gardens.

With a vision for a “healthier, more connected world in harmony with people and planet,” Fleet Farming manages over 18 community gardens created in low-income housing developments, women rehabilitation centers, and other important community-oriented groups. It also sponsors school gardens in elementary schools, where it educates and engages kids early on about food and their connection to the planet.

“Food affects every single person, whether we are aware or not. To have this type of education at a young age can hopefully inspire the next generation of food providers.”

Fleet Farming previously managed a Farmlette in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood, which is considered a low-income food desert. A food desert is an area that has limited or no access to affordable and nutritious foods. The Farmlette is now managed by Infinite Zion Farms, a black-owned farmer collective that also serves other low-income food desert neighborhoods. It also offers a vegetable subscription box to the community. For those living in Parramore, the box is only $5 a week and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Electronic Benefits Transfer (SNAP EBT) cards are accepted. 

Ultimately, the goal isn’t to have a Fleet Farming franchise in every city or state but to influence people to start their own urban farming/agriculture program. While the average age of the American farmer is 65, Fleet Farming thinks the next generation can change that. In its own internship program, over 50 interns have been hired within the “green industry.” 

“More people are wanting to do good and go beyond attending farmers markets,” said Chomanics. “We’ve seen a lot more farmers pop up since we’ve started. We are starting to see our food system become even more local and resilient. It’s been an incredible journey, and it’s not even over.”