Students sprout helping hands at Clara White Mission

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Jones, a UNF finance and economics junior, will be spending much of the fall semester downtown at Clara White Mission helping the homeless and getting academic credit for it.

Jones is one of 10 UNF students who broke ground on an organic garden last month at the mission, a nonprofit organization in downtown Jacksonville, which has been helping the poor for over 100 years. The food gathered from the garden will be used to feed the homeless.

Christopher Johnson, an economics professor at UNF, is sponsoring the opportunity. The Board of Trustees approved his funding with a $4,500 Transformation Learning Opportunity grant, which is designed to give students a unique experience beyond their coursework and offer professional and personal development.

Johnson said this is an opportunity to go further than just talking about poverty but fighting it within the local community.

Johnson and the students are partnering with the Clara White Mission to support them with their culinary program, by having students create an organic garden where the produce can be used in the daily feedings and classes in the culinary program. 

“Many of the [Clara White] students being trained in the culinary program are homeless, formerly homeless and ex-offenders,” Johnson said. “They train them with a marketable skill, and [what] we are doing is helping them add to that marketable skill by adding the component of learning in organic gardening.”

With an increase of organic gardening in our nation, the focus on the organic food industry, Johnson said it is a very useful skill that the culinary students should have. It is also a good way for our students at UNF to interact with a population in a community that they might not otherwise have any exposure to, he said.

During the fall semester, every Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., UNF students and Clara White culinary students will jointly be participating in a workshop at Clara White, where they will learn about the aspects of organic gardening and the organic food industry. They will also be working in the garden.  Though the project is centered on the Tuesday workshops, Johnson welcomes the students to volunteer in the garden as well as the daily feedings at the mission.

Jones found the opportunity through an economics class this past spring. He found it to be right up his alley and treats the course credit he receives through the independent study as a bonus.

“Getting course credit definitely gives you extra motivation, but I want to learn more about organic gardening. Also, hanging out with the people down there and listening to their stories and trying to have a hand in making a difference is motivation.”

The types of produce they will be growing in the garden throughout the year will depend on the season, but it will be mostly made up of herbs and vegetables. Squash, watermelon and corn now grow in the garden.

Johnson describes the garden being at the Clara White Mission as “the perfect fit” because the mission wanted to do a community-based garden for a number of years.

Ju’Coby Pittman, chief executive and president of the Clara White Mission for 18 years, said the garden is a compatible match, as the mission serves food and trains in food services. The innovation of nonprofits joining together with a program such as this is unique.

“The innovation is one that no other nonprofit is doing in the state of Florida,” Pittman said. “To have nonprofits join together for the good of the community to educate students that it is not only about cooking and presentation but also about health and nutrition.”

Johnson is still looking for participants in the TLO garden and can contact him at [email protected] or call his office at 620-1693.

The Clara White Mission is also looking for volunteers for help with daily feedings. For more information, visit their website at clarawhitemission.org.