Community fruit trees planted to counter food deserts

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A new community garden has popped up in a place where access to affordable, fresh food is limited.

In East Bradenton Park on 13th Street East, 21 fruit trees were donated and planted by the Manatee County Rare Fruit Tree Council and the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota.

The fruits, which include bananas, mangoes, avocados and papayas, will be free to residents living near the park in an area classified as a "food desert" by the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County.

"Food desert [means] a half a mile or more away from a grocery store, so there's less access to healthy, fresh fruit," said Amber Mills, a public health associate with the Department of Health.

In a Manatee County food access study from 2015, 60 percent of people said access to fruit trees would help them eat healthier. Officials with the Florida Department of Health are launching their first tree grove at East Bradenton Park. They plan to plant more fruit trees in food desert zip codes throughout the county in the near future.

"There's a lot of people that hang out in the park that don't have access to getting a lot of the foods and things that maybe they would need," said Jessica Hillis, who walks through the park with her daughter, Brianna, daily to get to their home.

"It's going to give kids the opportunity to eat more fruits than what they are normally allowed to have. Also, they can taste new fruits, maybe something they've never had before," added Hillis.

An installed irrigation system will allow the trees to grow without much assistance, making it easier for residents who will not have to help garden.

The young trees will take several months to begin growing fruit. Health officials expect the trees to produce larger size fruit regularly within a year.