University area CDC fifth annual Paint the Town

On Saturday University Area Community Development Corporation staff and volunteers did more than just pick up trash and plant flowers: they also planted the seeds for big changes in one of Tampa’s largest food deserts.

Saturday marked the fifth Paint the Town service day for the UACDC, a 501-c-3 focused on improving the quality of life in the economically depressed neighborhoods around USF’s campus. Hundreds of volunteers helped pick up trash, paint homes and murals and plant new flowers, fruits and vegetables in the Harvest Hope community garden.

The volunteers were also laying the groundwork for a 7-acre park that will feature a sports field, kids playground, outdoor fitness area, walking trails, organic community garden and fishing pond.

The UACDC says they hope to turn the space, which for years has been blighted by drugs, trash and crime, into a beacon of hope for the community.

 “There’s no parks in the University Area Community. There are no sidewalks or places for kids to play or families to gather. We want to create this place so they can feel like a part of the community,” said USCDC CEO Sarah Combs.

 The process actually began three years ago with the Harvest Hope organic garden.

“People said, why would you do a garden of all things? And we said well, the health disparities of this community are deplorable. We have health outcomes equal to that of El Salvador and we’re in a food desert,” explained Combs.

The garden has 33 beds for organic fruits and vegetables, all of which are free to community members in need. Growing the fresh produce in this food desert, however, didn’t exactly take root immediately with neighbors.

“We found that people weren’t picking the spotted eggplant and dinosaur kale and we were thinking, whoa, these are really nutritious and expensive foods, how do we get them to pick this and eat this and learn about how good this stuff is for their bodies? ” recalled Combs. “We realized we were missing a step.”

The solution was free cooking lessons. A community kitchen, designed to look just like a home kitchen, was built next to the Hope Harvest garden.

“We think it’s really important that the entire family understands and learns how to cook and how to be self-reliant on themselves and not just the fast food restaurants or the corner stores that sell these terrible foods that are really just adding to the issues that plague our communities and the health disparities,” said Combs.

With the expansion of the Harvest Hope Park, neighbors will soon be able to pick and catch their next meal. In addition to clearing trash from future recreation spaces, volunteers also cleaned out a massive pond on the 7-acre lot. The pond is already thriving with bass, but the USCDC will also stock it with tilapia.

“It’s not just about catching a fish and being able to eat it. I know when I fish with my family, it’s more than just catching a fish. It’s that experience of uniting the family together and that’s what we want this park to be: a place where people can go and really enjoy the outdoors and bond as a family,” said Combs


The UACDC says they expect to have the new Harvest Hope Park ready by next month.