November 27th, 2008
'Victory garden' provides harvest of organic food for those in need
| Sentinel Staff Writer
Gigantic zucchini, tasty squash and wholesome collard greens are just some of the fresh organic produce bound for the tables of Central Florida's poor just in time for Thanksgiving.
Rows of nutritious food are growing in the midst of Kissimmee's tourist district -- including watermelons, okra, green beans and broccoli -- on 35 acres used by 1-800-Charity Farms.
The organization has delivered thousands of pounds of organically grown produce to Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida in the past few months. Billed as a "victory garden for the 21st century," the farm is the brainchild of Charity Cars founder Brian Menzies.
"We talked about this economy last year and thought that food would be one of those things that's not a luxury, that's necessity. " Menzies said. "With more and more people out of work and going to food banks like Second Harvest asking for help, it is a good expenditure of funds."
The farm is being financed by donations to Menzies' car charity which took in more than $8 million in revenue last year. Longwood-based Charity Cars puts together donors and recipients across the country. Donated cars that aren't suitable for distribution to a family are sold at auction or for salvage.
Menzies said it takes about $150,00 a year to run the farm but hopes the cost will be lower next year. Money this year had to be invested in an irrigation system and other improvements.
He dreams of a corporation - maybe a company in the restaurant or grocery business such as Darden or Whole Foods - buying naming rights. But he knows even big companies are facing tough times and are being asked for help from many organizations. Menzies hopes to raise money from individuals who would like to sponsor an acre, a section or even a row.
Second Harvest distributes food to more than 400 agencies and food pantries. They've been getting produce from the Kissimmee farm delivered at least three times a week for several months.
- "The organic stuff, when it comes in, it flies out the door," said David Krepcho, president and chief executive officer of Second Harvest. "We can turn it around and distribute it so quickly."
The idea started much smaller - Menzies envisioned a "gentlemen's garden" on 2 acres owned by Anthony House in Apopka. But and acquaintance - Jim Schaefer of International Organic Commodities Inc. - instead suggested the 450-acre property fronting U.S. Highway 192 that was once planned as a theme park mixing magic and Transcendental Meditation. The land is owned and operated by a nonprofit foundation, Maharishi Global Development Fund. And even though the property is for sale, it could be years before it sells, he said.
"It was kind of like manna from heaven, it dropped into my lap," Menzies said of the land. "I'm from Long Island, New York. What do I know about farming? I don't know anything about farming."
Larry Whetzel manages the site, making sure the crops are fertilized and that predators such as hungry deer are kept at bay. Crops were planted so they could be harvested until June.
Menzies said the concept is something that could be done anywhere land is available.
Food is an example of the tough choices Central Florida's poor often have to make, Krepcho said. Hunger and obesity can co-exist because a cash strapped parent will choose an economical box of macaroni and cheese over more expensive fresh produce.
"It's the most nutritious product we can distribute," Krepcho said. "It is just a terrific idea."