University of Florida students build hoop house over holiday break

This post is a reflection from a guest blogger, Josh Villanueva, on the time he and the University of Florida's Alternative Break group spent volunteering at the Food Shuttle's Farm and Community Gardensin mid December.

"Up until a few weeks ago the 13 members of our Florida Alternative Break (FAB) group were not sure how we would work to improve health and nutrition in Raleigh, North Carolina. We guessed that we might give presentations on healthy eating to community members.  Then, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle informed us that they really needed a hand with the building of a hoop house, an extension of the greenhouse, located on an organic farm of theirs. Excited to learn about this issue, our group took the trip full of enthusiasm to work and excitement for this new adventure.

Reporting to the farm the first day, we were unfortunately confronted with some of the coldest rainy weather that many of us Floridians have ever experienced. Sun Butler, our service director at the farm decided to postpone our first day of real work and instead to give us a tour of various community gardens set up in nearby areas.

I was so impressed by Sun’s intellect.  He explained how organic food is actually more nutritious than the mass-produced sort that we have become accustomed to eating today and supported all his claims with citing scientific data and experimental studies. His combination approach of tradition and science excited me. I never suspected that a farmer would have a minor in organic chemistry.

At the community garden site our group assisted by turning over compost, transplanting small shoots into flats located in the greenhouse, harvesting collard greens, and pulling nails out of reused wood planks. However, the most exciting work for me was definitely building the hoop house. A group of us guys followed Sun’s example and bent iron rebar into arcs that would form the hoop house’s skeleton using two wooden posts and the principles of torque. Who knew physics could have so much relevance in farm labor!

Some days we worked tough and were physically exhausted at the end, others required more technical work and some imagination. Whatever the case was we could always count on our leaders at the community farm to show us the ropes. I thank Ron Hunter for being so patient in demonstrating the best techniques for using tools so that we didn’t overstrain ourselves. I even learned how to use a power saw and power screwdriver.

By far though, the most important lesson gained from Sun and Ron was that organic farming and community gardens are part of a holistic process. You connect with nature by working the ground and protect the environment through organic techniques; people in the community unite over the shared responsibility of sustaining a garden, and those eating the crops benefit from a much higher quality and nutritional content. In addition to the environmental and nutritional ones, there definitely exists a strong social component which we all experienced firsthand by working on the farm.

However, my focus throughout the trip centered on nutrition and this trip certainly inculcate in me the importance of not only what you eat, but where it comes from and how it is produced. I truly hope that our few days of work helping on the farm will ensure that more hungry and malnourished people in the community have access to nutritious produce that much quicker."