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Imagine a day when local public high school students harvest cucumbers, salad greens, tomatoes, and peppers they have planted, nurtured, and grown and then serve them in their school cafeteria. That day is just around the corner for the students at Edgewater High School, thanks to an innovative program of 4Roots Farm.
In the fall of 2018, a new urban farm and a horticultural science program are expected to open on the Edgewater campus. “A core part of our mission is making agriculture approachable and a part of our public education again. We need to inspire and educate the next generation of American farmers, and by having on-campus produce growing just a handful of steps from their classrooms, students again will have the ability to envision a career in agriculture,” said John Rife III, executive director of 4Roots Farm.
A native Orlandoan, Rife is also the owner of East End Market on Corrine Drive. Two years ago, thought-leaders in agriculture, education, and food policy met at EEM to discuss “how we could all collectively make a positive impact in these areas by working together,” Rife said.
Renowned restaurateur and philanthropist John Rivers of 4Rivers Smokehouses led the meeting.
Rife said: “From that initial meeting the connections were made for his [Rivers’] foundation to begin its work with the Orange County School System … as the Foundation’s vision and scope began to expand, John [Rivers] asked if I would lend my experience as a real estate developer and urban farmer to his group’s efforts.”
With the purpose of “returning to our roots,” the 4R Foundation that Rivers established in 2015 aims to build community while “uniting to produce our own fresh food,” as stated in the Foundation’s promotional video.
According to OCPS Associate Superintendent for Career and Technical Education Mike Armbruster, what initially began as conversations about field trip opportunities — for public school students to visit future 4Rivers urban farms — developed quickly into talks about school-based farming projects. He said: “The horticultural side of agriculture is very appealing at Edgewater with its urban setting. It’s an exciting opportunity for students in agriculture but also for students in other programs to study entrepreneurship and starting a business.”
Armbruster said the school system is in the early, due process stage of development for Edgewater’s urban farm, with hopes that one day, the students at Edgewater High can even have a regularly scheduled farmers market at the school to sell their produce.
“It’s a unique chance to partner with 4Rivers and what we hope to see long term as an impact across all of OCPS,” Armbruster said.
According to Paige Greninger, 4R Foundation executive director, $300,000 of the $400,000 needed to complete the 4Roots Farm at Edgewater High School has been raised. Funding has come from Dr. Phillips Charities, Florida Blue, Kiwanis Club of Orlando Foundation, the 4R Restaurant Group, and The 4R Foundation.
The Edgewater project is modeled after a similar on-campus growing center at Ocoee High School. In 2016, the 4R Foundation invested in its first high school Horticulture Science and Agricultural Program and 4Roots Farm with a major revitalization of Ocoee High’s greenhouses and growing systems.
The high school growing centers are just the start for the 4R Foundation, Greninger said. Their key initiative is to create the 4Roots Farm and Regional Agriculture Center, where students will gain practical work experience and an opportunity to build a career in agriculture.
That agricultural center is what Ken Robinson of Dr. Phillips Charities called an “aspirational” portion covering 40 acres of the new regional park Dr. Phillips Inc. and the city are developing at John Young Parkway and Princeton Street in College Park.
According to Greninger, “John [Rivers]’s goal in running the 4R Ventures and Restaurant Group, and my hope in developing the 4R Foundation, is that we want to serve and impact the next generation and this community well … by investing and collaborating with others in the establishment of the 4Roots Farm in order to nourish and educate youth and members of the community — mind, body and soul — through the creation of, and access to, a local sustainable food system.”
In 2004, John Rivers harnessed his passion for cooking brisket to serve the community when he hosted a cookout fundraiser for a young girl battling cancer. He, his family, friends, and other volunteers then cooked for many people who needed help — schools, churches, charities, civic organizations, and people in distress.
Over the years, his “barbecue ministry” impact and popularity grew until Rivers could no longer handle the operation from his garage. Pledging to preserve the values and goals of his founding, he opened his first 4R Smokehouse in 2009. To date, 15 restaurants have opened in Florida and one in Atlanta.
As of 2016, 4Rivers contributed more than $2 million in charitable donations to organizations and individuals in need. This led Rivers to officially establish The 4R Foundation to ensure the continuation and enhancement of the restaurant group’s charitable efforts.
“The thought of having a project like the one in development at Edgewater High is so thrilling,” Rife said. “So many students, neighbors and even commuters will be impacted by having such a visible project right in the heart of College Park.”