Orlando City Foundation Plants Seeds for Sustainable Health
(April 2020) – Five-foot-7 and 5-foot-4. The respective heights of soccer players Lionel Messi and Marta Vieira da Silva, each named FIFA World Player of the Year six times, aren’t typically found in the player stats of any other sport. That, Kay Rawlins insists, is what makes the game so special.
The Orlando City Soccer Club co-founder and Orlando City Foundation president explained: “One of the things I love about soccer is that it is accessible to everyone. Young, old, male, female — any size or shape. Literally everyone can play. That’s what makes it such a great tool.”
For the foundation, soccer has become the gateway to a new approach to sustainable and holistic health, from safe places to play to community gardens — and just like the game, that approach is accessible to everyone.
“One of the things I love about soccer is that it is accessible to everyone. Young, old, male, female — any size or shape. Literally everyone can play. That’s what makes it such a great tool.” — Kay Rawlins
According to the foundation, Florida is No. 4 in the country for obesity, with 37% of children overweight or obese — and this number disproportionately affects underprivileged communities. When the Orlando City Foundation began in 2013, Rawlins and her team knew they wanted to be part of the solution. So they started with what they knew best: soccer. They started building what they call mini-pitches. Often built from converted tennis courts, these miniature soccer fields introduce a safe place to play in neighborhoods where there might not have been one before.
“We obviously can’t build a great big soccer field in some of these areas, so we created these,” Rawlins said. There are now eight mini-pitches in total. They serve as the perfect spots to host the foundation’s 12-week soccer programs, which are held two to three times a week at each spot, as well as at an additional four sites throughout Central Florida. The programs provide coaches, equipment and education for children who participate.
“It’s divided into weeks,” Rawlins said, “so each week we cover a new soccer skill, a new word of the week — teamwork, attitude, respect — and we also have the nutritional element of the week.”
It was the nutritional element that gave way to the gardens. “That was when we had an ‘aha!’ moment, when we realized, ‘We are providing nutrition information to children who don’t always have that option,’” Rawlins said. “They live in food deserts, where there’s very little fresh food.”
Instead, children and families in these areas often have access to only fast, cheap convenience food. All they needed, the foundation concluded, was access to the right resources. Enter the first community garden.
The First Garden
“We knew about soccer, not gardening, so we started looking around for partners,” Rawlins said. The foundation’s first stop was the Green Works Department of the City of Orlando, which already had a spot in mind: Rock Lake Community Center near Camping World Stadium, which was under construction for an expansion at the time.
The foundation also reached out to local urban agriculture program Fleet Farming for its expertise. Fleet Farming continues to build and maintain the gardens as the project expands. “They are our experts,” Rawlins said. “They come out with the tools and expertise, and they follow up with each location to be sure they are getting on well and help out when needed.”
One Saturday morning in 2016, Rawlins and her team set out to work, along with about 100 supporters, volunteers and staff members. “Even the team building the stadium came over,” Rawlins remembered. “They sent over their carpenters. With everyone working together, we built, filled and planted 20 beds in just four hours.”
Four years later, there are now 16 community gardens throughout the city. Six of them are near Orlando City’s mini-pitches so instructors can show the kids firsthand the ins and outs of growing their own food and healthy eating. Others are located at centers and schools such as the Boys & Girls Club at Pine Hills, the J.B. Callahan Neighborhood Center, and the Orange County Public Schools Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) school in Parramore. The foundation even helped fund the biggest community garden in Orlando off North Bumby Avenue at Lake Druid Park, which is home to 50 beds.
When the location isn’t near a mini-pitch, the hosting organization takes over the programming and maintenance, but the foundation and Fleet Farming still touch base to be sure the gardens are thriving.
The gardens have proved to be an effective learning tool for children and adults alike. They’ve also provided much-needed access to healthy food. At locations such as the ACE school, while the children learn to grow food, any leftover produce is available to be picked up by their families free of charge. At sites like the Coalition for the Homeless, the community gardens provide positive gathering places for people to come together.
“I have members of my team who come back and tell me they get to talk to people they might have passed on the street who are now hanging out in the gardens, watering or weeding, and trading what they’ve grown,” Rawlins said. “People are really coming together around the garden.”
Building the Future
Rawlins recalls Mayor Buddy Dyer’s goal for Orlando to be one of the best cities in the world for sustainability. “I think we are on a great track for that,” she said. “We are a very connected city. We like to come together and do things together. And we keep growing, so we have to keep making sure we’re growing in the right way. Luckily, we have great leaders who are determined to make that happen.”