PANAMA CITY — To combat the lack of easily accessible fresh food in the Millville community, Panama City will start planting a “food forest” in December at C.M. Kidd Harris Park to provide residents with produce that’s free for anyone to take.
In a partnership with Panama City's Quality of Life Department, the nonprofit Living Healthy. Simplified will plant a range of trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers for residents to maintain and use whenever they want. They will host a three-day community event Dec. 9-11 to construct and build the food forest, saying that anyone can stop by to help.
What will be happening each day:
Dec. 9 — Cleaning up of plant material along fence, beginning groundwork of mulch paths
Dec. 10 — Continuation of Thursday, laying irrigation lines
Dec. 11 — Finishing up any mulch paths and planting of trees and shrubs
Sam Mello, founder and CEO of Living Healthy. Simplified, said building a food forest had become a dream of hers after seeing the destruction to the area from Hurricane Michael in 2018 when she moved to the area with her husband. The Tampa native said after living in metropolitan areas and seeing their ways to combat food inequality, she wanted to implement them here.
“This is kind of an inspiration of things that I had seen along with coming here after the hurricane and realizing that it was just a lot of death and despair,” Mello said. “It seemed like that had just happened. But with always death and despair, there's always a rebirth that happens.”
No grocery stores in Millville
Currently in Millville, there are few grocery stores and limited access to fresh produce, thus creating what is generally referred to as a food desert — an area with only limited affordable and nutritious food, such as meats, beans and produce.
In a study of food deserts in Northeast Florida by Bruce Waite, Tracy L. Johns and David Dinkins at the University of Florida, it found that the prices of fresh food are significantly more expensive when bought in food deserts, which present a challenge to those who are already economically stressed and lead to those individuals developing a poor diet.
While fresh, locally-grown foods are available at farmers markets, the study states “very few of the markets are located in food deserts, making their access difficult for economically disadvantaged consumers.”
Millville resident and previous advisory council member James Oshields said, to his knowledge, there have not been plans to implement or restore any grocery stores since Hurricane Michael.
"When the storm tore up our grocery store, vandals came in and took everything out of it, so they just never reopened," Oshields said. "But we don't have a major grocery store at all in Millville."
Oshields said the residents of Millville have been struggling during the past three years without a grocery store and feel like they are a "stepchild" because city officials have not done much to help.
"It has been really bad, especially with the prices of everything going up," Oshields said. "We have a lot of elderly residents that live in Millville, a lot of people who are on limited income. It's taken its toll on the people in Millville."
Mello said this lack of accessible grocery stores is what led her to pursue the food forest project.
“Basically the whole south portion of Panama City, the Cove, St. Andrews, there's no grocery store on that side,” Mello said. “Being able to provide something for community members to just be able to access and see and visit and enjoy, it's kind of a little dream of mine.”
They will be planting an array of native and nonnative plants — all beneficial and safe to the local environment — including red mulberries, Tupelo trees that produce fruit, blueberries, lemons, limes and native wildflowers. They also will add a green composting bin and a small bee hive.
Mello said everyone can contribute to the forest, with citizens already pitching their ideas for more benches, Tupelo trees for honey and help with the green composting bin.
“It's not just one person's idea. It’s the whole community's idea,” Mello said. “I think it's important that the community understands that and the community knows that if they have an idea and they think like, ‘Oh, I have a piece of art, I'm a great artist. And I think I could bring great artistic representation of something to this park.’ We would love to know how you can contribute and how you can make your mark on the community.”
The future of the forest
When it comes to the future of the food forest, organizers hope to add more options within the next few years. Mello said she has a lot of goals for it and hopes those who partake in the forest can get inspiration and education from it.
“I would love to, down the road, be able to loop in phase two, which is being able to essentially advocate on harvesting the food and doing cooking classes with it and providing cooking classes to the community,” Mello said. “And that would be amazing, being able to take food from our community food forests and have those classes. But one step at a time.”
Mello said she wants to establish in the community what she's missed out on — picking her own produce. Growing up, she remembers the orange groves near her home becoming smaller and smaller.
When talking to the older generations who were able to explore the groves and grab their own fruit, she realized how much she missed out on and didn’t want others to lose out on that chance.
“It would be really cool to be able to provide that for the generations that are growing up underneath us to be able to have,” Mello said. “They used to grow up and be like, ‘Oh, I can go to a park and I can just take food off of a bush and eat it.’ Like that's an experience I never have had, but if I can provide that for somebody else, I think that'd be really cool.”
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Panama City Florida planting free produce in Millville for residents