ORLANDO, Fla. – John Rivers, the man behind 4 Rivers barbecue, has been working for years on a plan to change the food system in Central Florida. He is now moving into phase one.
It all surrounds his non-profit organization 4Roots, which is “an alliance of community stakeholders investing in a healthy thriving, sustainable, food system,” according to its website. The goal is to improve food access in Central Florida while increasing education about healthy eating.
The main feature of the organization is the 4Roots Farm Campus, which will be a 40-acre farm and educational facility in Orlando’s new Packing District off of John Young Parkway.
Rivers had originally hoped to break ground on the farm campus in 2019, but construction was delayed into 2020 and then the pandemic hit, waylaying those plans even further.
“We’re about a year and a couple months delayed right now,” Rivers said.
Despite that, the wheels of progress are in full motion on the 4Roots farm now.
“About 60 days ago, we started clearing it (the land),” Rivers said. “And now we’re waiting on permits. Permits are into the city of Orlando, and we’re in the first phase of our program.”
Rivers said the main focus of this first phase is education, so the classrooms, open field farming and the hydroponics farm will be constructed first.
“And if all goes well, then we should have students on campus — I’d say — by the end of next year,” he added.
Despite the delay, Rivers said the pandemic created new opportunities to help the community through food.
“We started working with farmers across the state to — we call it rescue — to go out and rescue produce off their fields that was otherwise going to waste. Because restaurants and hotels and everybody else had stop buying from them. We brought that produce here into Central Florida, and we turned it into meals,” Rivers said. “And we handed out fully cooked meals, as well as bags of fresh produce, to students who weren’t able to make it to their pickup points for their summer meal program. And then we expanded it once we saw it wasn’t just the students that were hungry, it was their families as well.”
This initiative became Feed the Need Florida which has served more than 1.6 million meals since it began in March 2020, according to its website.
“We were able to actually hire 326 people out of the restaurant service industry, who had lost their jobs, to create these meals. So, you know, COVID, it certainly knocked the farm back a little bit, but what was a blessing in the middle of it was that it allowed us to do exactly what we said we’re going to do with the farm — completely unplanned.”
Rivers has also started to form partnerships through 4Roots and brought several organizations together. 4Roots is now partnered with The Farmacy, which sells locally grown produce around Orlando, and O-Town Compost, which is a subscription service that collects and composts food waste and now operates out of Feed the Need’s distribution warehouse along Princeton Avenue.
4Roots has also formed collaborations with the Orlando Science Center and Orlando Health.
“We opened up the 4Roots Cafe,” Rivers said. “That’s a great collaboration and a partnership with the science center and with Orlando health, and we not only created and put in a cafe in their location but really the emphasis and the focus and excitement for me was to also put in a Food Heroes exhibit. So, if you go and you walk into the restaurant where the dining room was before, we transformed it into a full exhibit with hands-on (displays) for kids and lots of videos, lots of neat things that are happening in there.”
Rivers clearly has a lot of irons in the fire surrounding 4Roots, but he said he remains most excited about the educational aspects of non-profit.
“Just getting a bunch of students out there, and OCPS (Orange County Public Schools) students, and teaching them about regenerative processes and practices around farming,” he said. “Really excited to see students actually in the greenhouses, growing produce and learning different techniques.”
He added, “We’re there to teach, and we’re there to educate — and not just students, but we’re working on programs with different organizations to bring in parents and families and teach them not just about where food comes from, but how to cook it, and how to prepare it. We’re working with some hospitals about how do we build nutritional programs into this so that we really utilize all the assets that we can to truly make a difference in the community.”
Rivers spoke about his partnership with Orange County schools. He has, so far, worked to build agricultural programs at Ocoee and Edgewater High Schools and has a deal with the district to make a third.
“100% of everything that’s grown at both of those facilities, goes back into the high school cafeterias, which is really, really neat,” Rivers said.
Rivers said people can support 4Roots by signing up to receive produce from the Farmacy.
“Proceeds go to help support, not only the Farmacy, but the (4Roots) farm as well,” he said.
People can also donate to 4Roots here.
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