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White Harvest Farms Seeks To Bring Healthy Food To Moncrief

Today is Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. the St. Johns Cathedral in downtown Jacksonville hosts the Clara’s at the Cathedral buffet.

The food is prepared and served by students of the Clara White Mission’s culinary school and customers from all around Jacksonville make it a point to eat there every week.

The school includes a catering business and upon graduation the students, many who are veterans, homeless and financially disadvantaged can use the skills they’ve learned to get a job in the food preparation and catering industry.

The Clara White Mission has been a Jacksonville institution for decades serving the poor and homeless. Proceeds raised from these meals help fund the programs at the mission. And many of the vegetables served for lunch come from one of the newest Clara White mission successes.

Sitting on part of a 11-and-a-half acre site off Moncrief Road is White Harvest Farms. Opened in 2012, the urban farm provides produce for the buffet.

Eugene Monts tends the crops at the White Harvest.

"What we have is what's called mustard greens and collards and cabbage," he said. "It's been pretty productive."

The farm is the brainchild of Clara White Executive Director Ju’Coby Pittman.

The neighborhood near the farm is identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a food desert, meaning access to fresh, healthy food is extremely limited. Pittman said the goal of the farm is to help the neighbors improve their diets.

"We're here to roll out our program for the community and that they can come here and buy it for inexpensive price to feed their family," she said.

Pittman said they will be opening the White Harvest Farmers market in a couple of months. Neighbors, if they have their own gardens, can sell their produce as well.

Pittman said the market is something she is very excited about opening.

"As you know our President and the First Lady are definitely involved in nutrition and making sure that our kids are eating healthy and so we want to follow that leadership and follow the legacy of what fruits and vegetables have done to families in the community," she said.

Funding for the urban farm came from grants by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Dupont and Community Foundations.

Funding also comes from Florida Blue and the Duval County Health Department.

Farmer Monts said they are looking to expand beyond the greens and vegetables they’re growing now.

"We're going to set out some citrus as well," he said. "We've already purchased the trees so it's just a matter of springtime coming around we'll set out a few satsumas and grapefruit trees and orange trees."

With the expansion of the garden Pittman is hoping to inspire more neighbors to plant their own small gardens. She said they have been educating area school children to get them interested in where their food comes from.

"A lot of kids in this neighborhood don't get an opportunity to experience and be exposed (to farming)," she said.

"When Mr. Monts started this effort several of the kids would come over. They would want to know what we're doing they were very intrigued because again we don't have anything like this in this neighborhood."

Monts said he enjoys working with the children who will plant seeds and watch as their adopted plant grows and be harvested. He said the kids learn quickly there are many life lessons in farming a crop.

"You don't just throw it in the ground. And once you plant the seed you've got to nurture it," he said. "You plant the seed but you've got to nurture it along and that principle applies here and when they can do it here they can carry it through life."

The farm is on the old homestead of the mission’s founder Eartha White. And they plan to eventually include an education center, and a greenhouse on the property and want to turn White’s home into a museum.

You can follow Kevin Meerschaert on Twitter @KMeerschaertJax.

Kevin Meerschaert has left WJCT for new pursuits. He was the producer of First Coast Connect until October of 2018.