Orlando is Creating Healthier Communities with Volunteers and Vegetables

How Orlando is Partnering with Sodexo and Cities of Service to Create a Healthier, Safer City

Many residents of urban centers around the country have little exposure to nature and lack easy access to healthy food. The City of Orlando is tackling this problem with The Garden, a program that creates safer, healthier communities with the help of volunteers and vegetables.

The Garden is part of Orlando Cares, a volunteer initiative that focuses on supporting vulnerable children with education and skill-building opportunities. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Chief Service Officer Marcia Hope Goodwin along with nearly 1,000 stakeholders created the initiative with support from Cities of Service in 2011.

An after-school program offered throughout the city, The Garden engages volunteers to teach youth about nutrition, environmental sustainability, and the importance of exercise and wellness. The program is made possible through a partnership between Orlando, Cities of Service, Sodexo, and other local organizations.

AmeriCorps VISTAs recruit and train community volunteers to facilitate classes on how to create gardens and teach elementary and middle school students about subjects including nutrition, hydroponics, and healthy lifestyles. Students and volunteers create container gardens and raised garden beds, which are maintained by participating youth and volunteers.

The Garden sessions take place at community centers around the city, primarily in low-income neighborhoods that may not have adequate access to nutritious foods. Many of the youth who participate in the program have little experience with nature or agriculture.

Whether planting tomatoes, mint, or kale in the garden beds or tasting the food that they’ve grown, the students participating in The Garden are trying new and nutritious foods and learning about healthy eating.

“Every time we show up, the kids’ faces light up and they say, ‘Are we going to the garden today?'” said one volunteer. “I love to see the students find something in their garden on their own. It is such a genuine and novel experience.”

Volunteers include people like award-winning chef Chrissy Benoit, who says she is on a mission to change the food landscape “one veggie at a time,” as well as individuals from the local community.

This year, the city is enhancing the program by engaging residents who live within a mile of the community centers to ensure that The Garden is a sustainable, community-driven project.

Sodexo, which provides food services and other quality of life services, operates at locations around the world, including many in Orlando.

“Sodexo is committed to improving quality of life for all those we serve, and contributing to the economic, social and environmental development of the cities where we operate,” said Jennifer Williamson, Senior Vice President of Brand & Communications for Sodexo North America. “The Garden aligns perfectly with our mission to contribute to the communities where we live, work and serve by ensuring everyone has access to nutritious meals.”

In addition to creating a more sustainable city, The Garden addresses another of the mayor’s priorities: community safety. The program provides a safe place for youth to gather, and the sessions take place in the afternoon, when students are most at risk to engage in illegal activity or other risky behaviors.

The Orlando Cares volunteer initiative was created to reduce juvenile delinquency and increase education rates. Mayor Dyer, Goodwin, and University of Central Florida researchers engaged with hundreds of community stakeholders and service experts from the public and private sectors, as well as individual citizens, to develop a plan to address these pressing issues. Nearly 12,000 youth have benefited from the initiative, including those served by The Garden.

“The Garden is improving the safety and health of our neighborhoods for city youth,” said Mayor Dyer. “By engaging volunteers and business partners, we are able to have a greater impact on the wellbeing of our citizens and create a more sustainable city for everyone.”