A new urban farm in Riviera Beach produces hope for the community
A non-profit urban farm partners with city and community stakeholders to produce a food forest that aims to address the city's food desert.
When Riviera Beach residents stroll through the entrance of the new Urban Farm and Restorative Garden, they’re greeted by a mural, two distinct hand-crafted flower pots, and a small children’s playground. The urban farm looks aesthetically pleasing, walkable and playful, but with a serious goal of addressing the city’s food dessert issue.
Veleké Brown, CEO & Founder of E-Roadmap Corp., says the effort starts by growing and sustaining accessible food forests within the city. Her non-profit runs an initiative called Operation No Food Gap. It’s part of a community-led effort to provide more organic, non-GMO food options — cantaloupes, radishes, zucchini, squash, black beans, spinach, romaine lettuce, carrots, and cucumbers are just some of the produce available at what was once an old fire station lot. And they’ve surrounded the vegetable area with a few fruit trees like cherries, plums, and bananas.
“We have soursop for the medicinal properties, coconut, lemon, mulberry, allspice, I mean everything," said Brown. Her goal is “to look where there is an extreme need” and surround low-income communities “with food that’s alive.”
“Riviera Beach, unfortunately, has a lot of our marginalized people. And when you think about health disparities, it starts at the beginning ... with food,” said Brown. “So we know if we can create and provide access to healthy foods then, at the end of the day, most people won’t suffer with these health disparities."
Low proximity to healthy food markets and low car ownership are just two of many factors that have contributed to the limited access to nutritious food in communities across the country, according to research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2020, Douglas Lawson, a Riviera Beach councilperson, said predominately Black residents of Riviera Beach are also disproportionately affected by food swamps — the over exposure to convenience stores and fast food, which have led to greater risk of obesity and other ailments.
The urban farm is located next to the Barracuda Bay Aquatic Complex on Blue Heron Boulevard. It's a central location. Brown says the area is “a major artery for Riviera Beach.”
After soil testing and amendments, the fruit and vegetable farm had a groundbreaking ceremony in April of 2021 and planted the first seed. Between May and September, the farm, through its Operation No Food Gap initiative, gave away close to 4,000 pounds of organic produce to families in the area.
“We wanted to create a long-term solution,” said Brown. “And our solution was to grow the food, provide access, get the community involved, provide rap-around-services in terms of workshops, and really just change the narrative for the people in Riviera Beach.”
Brown said the farm is part of a holistic approach to community engagement. “We teach yoga, meditation, mindfulness affirmations,” she said.
The Operation No Food Gap initiative is also in partnership with the American Heart Association and the Children's Services Council. On January 8, Brown says just over 200 people showed up for the farm's official grand opening.
Brown said Amon Yisrael, a Riviera Beach resident and healthy food advocate and farm consultant, helped her get things off the ground. Yisrael connected Brown with Jonathan Evans, Riviera Beach's City Manager.
Yisrael attended the grand opening and said he was surprised by the number and mixture of young and older people that showed up. He spoke to 75 to 85 year old seniors. “To see them at that age want to find out how to do things from more of a nutritional perspective, natural organic perspective, was really shocking to me,” said Yisrael. He noted that many attendees spoke of how high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer run rampant in their communities.
“And to actually have a garden where people can see and learn how to plant, maintain or manage and grow food is very important,” he said.
Yisrael said several people from his block who came to the grand opening felt inspired to plant and grow vegetables at their homes. “So having a garden is producing life,” said Yisrael. "We have live bodies. So we need to put live food in a our live body.”
Veleké Brown wants to partner with municipalities across the county to turn unused parcels of land into food forests. As for now, the non-profit urban farm, located on 1621 West Blue Heron Blvd, is on track to harvest 8 to 10,000 pounds of produce a year. The farm is currently in winter harvest, planting cauliflower, broccoli, two different types of cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and beets.
Brown wants to expand gardening to vulnerable neighborhoods in West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, Belle Glade, Delray Beach, and a small pocket of Jupiter by 2023.
“In terms of giving out food, that's short term,” said Brown. “Growing food, teaching people how to grow food, teaching people the benefits of eating live foods, that is a long term solution.”