By Nicole Billing & Emily Heise
District 2 Council Member Brandi Gabbard has been fighting back against food insecurity in St. Petersburg by spearheading new amendments supporting urban agriculture.
The need for new legislation arose with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as food insecurity became more prevalent. The bill recognizes how urban agriculture can be beneficial for the community and offer not only economic value, but provide fresh produce to residents and revitalize communities and vacant lands.
Originally from Indiana, Gabbard moved to St. Petersburg in 2003 and led a successful career as a real estate agent. She was elected to the City Council in 2017, and currently chairs the Legislative Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations Committee.
Gabbard and others proposed numerous amendments to the Florida Senate Bill (SB) 628, titled Urban Agriculture, which covers rules and regulations regarding farm equipment, distinguishment of urban farmland, local municipality requirements and community involvement.
Pinellas Rep. Michele Rayner has also joined Sen. Darryl Rouson to promote the new legislation.
The addition of the “Urban Agriculture Pilot Project Act” in the bill allows for local municipalities to retain their right to “reasonably regulate urban agriculture to protect existing urban land uses.”
Gabbard’s Legislative Aide, Kim Amos, shared that the senate bill amendments were recently voted on, and received a unanimous agreement from the House of Representatives.
“Senate Bill 628 passed the house on Wed., April 28 with a 117 Yays-0 Nays vote,” Amos said.
Despite the progress that has been made for urban agriculture, Gabbard and others fighting for food and nutritional equity understand it will take a lot more effort to remedy this issue.
In an interview with The St. Pete Catalyst, Gabbard explained that the new bill she has led is only the beginning to securing a fresh, healthy and local food source for all St. Petersburg residents.
“This is not one and done. We can’t just check the box on food insecurity and move on. We need to keep working. We need to keep coming up with ideas. We need to keep collaborating,” Gabbard said. “What is that next big idea that can help to feed people in St. Petersburg? That’s really where I’m at right now — looking for what’s next. What more can we do?”
In addition to the bill amendments, Gabbard and others fought to amend the Florida Code of Ordinances, specifically Ord. No. 448-H, to help further support the urban agriculturalists and their efforts to produce and sell their products.
The ordinance amendments were officially adopted on Feb. 11, 2021 to add specific gardening definitions, lower permit fees, and to establish standards for landscaping, building development, and home produce sales. They also give the local government the ability to regulate urban agriculture when necessary.
New permit application fees for community gardens and roadside vending were reduced by half, and one gardening structure per single-family dwelling exempt from design requirements are now allowed. Requirements for irrigation systems to follow federal and state regulations were added as well.
The Home Produce Sales section was amended to permit the on-site sale of produce to be sold in other zoning districts in accordance with specific standards for home produce and commercial gardens and greenhouses. Also, surplus produce is now allowed to be sold off-site to cover garden operation costs.
“This ordinance can help fight food insecurity. There are several food deserts in our city, and it is ideas like these that begin to develop solutions to these issues,” Amos said.
Plans are currently in the works to help educate the public about the amendments to the Senate bill and ordinance. Amos described a few avenues the city plans to take to get the word out.
“The city is already in the process of developing a brochure that helps the public understand how the ordinance impacts their abilities to grow and sell their harvest,” Amos said. “Additionally, information will be pushed through social media channels and there is hope that interest will continue with the media and local educational institutions to develop stories.”
The amendments are supported by healthcare professionals like Wendy Wesley, RDN, a licensed dietitian nutritionist working to improve nutritional security for St. Petersburg residents.
Wesley works with many people with chronic health issues such as diabetes and cardiac disease. Battling these diseases necessitates a healthy, nutrient-dense diet.
“It was news to me that people could not sell what they grew,” Wesley told the St. Pete Catalyst. “It was something that caught my attention.”
These types of actions aren’t just happening locally. According to the National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL), numerous U.S. states have enacted bills, ordinances, and programs that support urban agricultural efforts and have proven beneficial for the economy and community.
California adopted the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone (UAIZ) Ordinance in 2013 to support local food production, and in 2010, Colorado created a Food Systems Advisory Council to also promote local food economies.
A bill in Hawaii allows the provision of incentives for housing projects that incorporate urban gardening programs, and two bills in Illinois give preference to buying locally-grown products and providing policies and funding that support local food systems.
Minneapolis and Delray Beach are also examples of cities with urban agriculture policies that have benefited their local communities and economies.
Minneapolis’ Community Garden, Market Garden and Urban Farm Policy, created in 2015, allowed for people to lease undeveloped, city-owned pieces of land for community gardens, market gardens and urban farms.
Delray Beach’s Community Gardens Policy, adopted May 16, 2016, also allowed for the noncommercial use of city-owned land for community gardening and other activities such as composting practices.
Based on the positive impacts being made in other places, the amendments will likely be a welcome change for St. Petersburg. There’s more to these agricultural bills than just feeding people. They provide opportunities for new jobs, community interaction, and could potentially have a significant impact on the St. Petersburg economy and community’s future.
The bill amendments are planned to go into effect July 1.