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Pine Manor Garden provides food and opportunities for volunteers

Arlo Simonds harvests bananas at Pine Manor in Fort Myers, Florida, on November 19, 2021. The garden grows foods that remind the residents of home.
Arlo Simonds
Arlo Simonds harvests bananas at Pine Manor in Fort Myers, Florida, on November 19, 2021. The garden grows foods that remind the residents of home.

Robin Gretz helps manage the garden in the Fort Myers community of Pine Manor. She has seen a profound impact on community members. One volunteer in particular stands out to her.

"If it weren't for this garden, she would be sitting alone in her duplex watching TV," said Gretz. "By coming to the garden three days a week, she's outside, she's doing things. She's eating what she's grows, and while she's obese, she's diabetic, her doctor just raves every time she goes in to see him how her health has improved. And he says, 'I don't know what you're doing, but keep doing it.'"

Arlo Simonds also runs the garden. He says one of the reasons the garden is successful is that it provides foods that remind people of home.

"The last food pantry day, we harvested a bunch of cassava or yuca, which is a fairly culturally significant food group to much of Latin America, much of Africa and so on. So that resonates with the community members," said Simonds.

Visitors are even allowed to take clippings home and plant them in their yards.

"They don't even have to really come into the garden, all they have to do is walk by it or drive by it one time and be like, "Wow! those are some pigeon peas,'" said Simonds. "And then maybe they'll come in and take advantage of that because in some ways, with the case of the pigeon peas, we will intentionally put them in places that they don't necessarily have to come ask us. They can just take if they want it, if it's there. I mean, this is their garden, it's their community."

Isabella Cummings - A Reporter's Notebook
I would have never eaten yuca if my Dominican-born mother hadn’t guilted me into it. She loved it, along with many other Dominican foods.

When she was pregnant with me, she got cravings for yuca and other foods she had grown up eating. I think she saw the food as a sort of sacred connection to her culture.

Before I discovered “la comida chatarra” (junk food), my mom and grandma often fed me mashed yuca and I apparently savored every last crumb. Now, I dislike the root — even though I know it has antioxidant properties — I still can’t manage to take more than a bite or two.

When I covered the story about the Pine Manor garden, I was able to compare the way I was raised with the way children in low-income neighborhoods grow up.

Out of the three women I spoke to, the oldest one, has seven grandkids. Her name is Irma Meza and she said “The kids get fatter from eating street food. It doesn't go down well with their stomachs that are accustomed to eating home food since I don’t ever support them eating junk like McDonald’s or pizza.”

As I listened to her, I felt inspired. She was almost yelling to express her perspective. it’s like no one had ever asked her about her experiences and observations upon moving to the United States.

Katterine Perez has young children, and she said she varies what she feeds them.

“To avoid letting them get bored or picky, I teach them to eat ingredients mixed together. They like the yuca in soup, with meat, in tortillas, even fried,” Perez said.

Jaklin Lenuz comes to the food pantry in Pine Manor, which is held twice a month. She says that the access to resources is definitely a blessing, but “it still doesn’t beat the flavor you get when harvesting from original soil in the native homeland.”

Lenuz’s son is in elementary school. She doesn’t pack him lunch to take, so he eats the free meals in the cafeteria. When he gets home, she has dinner ready for him because he prefers her cooking instead and looks forward to it.

It’s no surprise to me that Lenuz’s son feels this way because even though I don’t enjoy all Dominican foods, I still prefer my mom’s recipes over something like Chipotle or Pollo Tropical. I think it has more meaning when I know the chef, and as a result I’m more likely to expand my diet.