Growing community bonds, one tomato at a time
Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Beverly Williams (above) oversees two community gardens that provide produce such as tomatoes (below) to area residents.
GROWING UP IN PENSACOLA on the Florida Panhandle, Beverly Williams learned a love of service—and of the land—from her grandparents. Her grandfather loved growing beefsteak tomatoes and rows upon rows of collard greens. Her grandmother, a seamstress, regularly volunteered at their local church. Williams has instilled a love of the land and the need to give back in her own children, saying, “It’s the simplest things that can make a big difference in people’s lives.”
With a passion for service, Williams became a licensed practical nurse in Pensacola, caring for members of her community and raising her two children. In 1974, an injury from a fall caused Williams to retire from nursing, and her family moved to the community of Lauderdale Lakes in South Florida.
Searching for a new outlet that would combine her love of gardening and community service, Williams earned certification as a master gardener from the University of Florida in 2010 and trained to become a Habitat Steward through the National Wildlife Federation and NatureScape Broward. These experiences gave her a deeper knowledge of Florida’s soil types, native plants, growing strategies and the plants’ needs for light and water—knowledge she would use to help her neighbors.
Drawn into local politics, Williams ran for commissioner of Lauderdale Lakes in 2014 and won 50 percent of the vote, a move that helped her connect deeply with her community and understand its need for access to clean, fresh water and safe, pesticide-free produce. She worked to provide both and began overseeing the city’s Frank J. Coleman Community Garden.
Opened in 2011 with 17 produce beds, the garden today has expanded to more than 47 beds to meet community demand. Families or individuals can join the garden for $10 and rent a garden bed for $20 for the season, which runs from about September to May each year.
Community members delight in the chance to grow crops they might not otherwise have the space to grow. Many express apprehension about getting into gardening for the first time, but Williams says, “You don’t need a green thumb to grow things as long as you have time, water and sunlight.”
Members of the Coleman garden grow kale, cabbage, turnips, squash, onions, tomatoes, peas, collards, peppers, oregano and many flowering plants that help sustain pollinator populations. Through NWF’s Community Wildlife Habitat™ program, Williams also educates children and families beyond the community garden by supporting pollinator gardens at schools and native tree giveaways throughout Lauderdale Lakes.
Inspired by the popularity of the Coleman garden, Lauderdale Lakes started a Children’s Community Garden in 2013. Open on Saturdays, it’s a space where young kids and high school students volunteer to garden “farm style,” learning to prepare soil, plant seeds, harvest the fruits of their labors and even earn credit towards graduation. This hands-on experience, says Williams, will “instill lifelong passion for gardening and a love for nature.”
Garden volunteer Kympress (“Kym”) Sanon reflected that passion until her death in early 2022. In an interview about the garden just a few weeks before she passed, she said, “The most rewarding thing is seeing the kids come back to thank us for everything they’ve learned.” Williams honors Sanon’s legacy, saying, “She often told the children, ‘You have to love the Earth. You have to give back to the Earth.’ She was beloved by all of the children who visited the garden.”
Garden members also love sharing the harvest. Both community gardens donate to area seniors, supplementing food from Florida’s Farm Share program. The gardens donate bags of vegetables—such as kale, tomatoes, carrots, Swiss chard, lettuce, beans and peas—so that seniors with limited mobility can still access healthy food.
Such efforts show how community gardens can help address the issue of food insecurity, which plagues numerous low-income and urban areas that do not have adequate access to healthy, affordable food. Community gardens also help people learn about and enjoy new kinds of fruits and vegetables they might not otherwise know. “The most gratifying part of our work,” says Williams, “is seeing people learn the value of healthy food access and pass on this important knowledge to their families and friends.”
Passionate about giving back, Williams also encourages community members to get involved. She urges her constituents to volunteer and help keep legislators like herself in check, saying, “You are a part of this community, so you need to participate in meetings and hold me accountable by showing up.”
Upon leaving office at the end of her term later this year, Williams has every intention of continuing to run the gardens in her community. “This is her baby,” says garden volunteer and attorney Karen Black-Barron. “She taught us everything about growing.”
“We all need to have a purpose in life,” says Williams, “and I’ve decided this is my purpose.”
Julia Jeanty is the policy manager at Data for Progress, a think tank and polling firm.
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