By Amanda Dawson
Fernando “Tito” Sosa is the owner and founder of Water Me Green, a company looking to help transform Jacksonville’s food deserts into areas bursting with fresh produce.
Access to fresh produce is a problem for many residents of Jacksonville. Area health experts estimate that Jacksonville has at least 30 food deserts. Food deserts are areas where residents do not have easy access to markets or stores that provide fresh food and produce.
He imagines “towers” of growing vegetables where he can nurture fresh produce. Tomatoes, green beans and squash would be part of the pillars of greenery that could be grown in any space, even on a flat, concrete roof.
Sosa and the Water Me Green company will be showcasing their project “Sustainable Table” at the 2015 One Spark festival, project No. 21881. The project will be set up at the local confectionery store, Sweet Pete’s.
Sosa is in the initial stages of the project. He is asking for $100,000 that will be utilized for purchasing aeroponic towers, an overhanging pergola and to cover costs for leasing the patio space, utility fees and marketing.
Currently looking for a space to lease to house the project, Sosa is communicating with several downtown businesses, like Sweet Pete’s, about building the tower garden on their rooftops.
“What is so amazing about this tower system is that you can use rooftop space that no one is utilizing and make it a garden to nourish the community,” Sosa said
The Sustainable Table project will create an aeroponic tower garden to host educational gardening workshops and produce fresh produce for the Jacksonville community. Along with providing produce for sale to local consumers and restaurants, Sosa also wants to teach the community about aeroponic gardening.
Sosa is talking with several local restaurants that are interested in this project and looking for more partnership opportunities.
“I want to work with Jacksonville restaurants too, so that we know we are enjoying clean food and not compromising our values when eating out,” Sosa said.
Sosa is also communicating with people from both the University of Florida and the University of North Florida about helping to facilitate workshops and possibly secure grant funding.
The Sustainable Table project will consist of 50 aeroponic towers covered with a pergola. The towers are built by a company based out of Florida. Each tower weighs about 50 pounds, is a little under 9 feet tall and holds 44 plants.
The seedlings are grown in a pod on the tower in a natural base made of volcanic fibers. A nutrient and water solution is released from the top and rains down on the plants in cycles.
The aeroponic system is unique because it uses vertical towers to reduce land space, instead of traditional horizontal growing systems. Another unique feature is that the system does not use soil, so herbicides are not required. The system is different from hydroponic systems as it allows the plant roots to get continuous oxygen because they are not completely submerged in water.
In these towers, it is possible to grow a wide range of produce, such as leafy greens, herbs, watermelons, tomatoes, beans and peas. The system cannot grow things like tubers, plants that grow underground such as potatoes. Sosa explained the benefits of using aeroponics.
“With a system like this, it opens up potential of where food can be grown,” Sosa said. “Land that is unsuitable for growing can be turned into a vertical food garden. For people living in apartments who want to grow their own food, this gives them an opportunity.”
Sosa is an army veteran who lives in Jacksonville with his wife Elishia and 2-year-old son Asher.
“My inspiration for this project is my son,” he said. “In 50 years, I don’t want him to be living in a food desert.”
After his son was born, Sosa decided he was sick of checking food labels and needed to know that he was feeding his son clean food. He purchased a home version of the tower. It runs on the same principles as the bigger towers. A standard machine comes with 24 plugs, allowing an individual or family to grow 24 plants, and costs approximately $500.
“We had budgeted about $50 a month for our produce budget. The system pays itself off in a year. It costs pennies to plant some seeds that have given us produce every day for over a year. Once I realized how easy it is, I realized this could be a great thing for Jacksonville,” explained Sosa.
Sosa shared that his mother was always the best gardener in the family, and he purchased a tower for her as a mother’s day gift.
Sosa’s mother Mayumi, a Jacksonville resident, said she is very satisfied with her tower.
“Now I can grow so many plants and not get my hands dirty or hurt my back from having to bend over,” she said.
If the Sustainable Table project is successful, Sosa envisions his company building similar garden towers throughout Jacksonville and the surrounding areas.
Sosa has already set up 10 display garden towers on the second floor patio of Sweet Pete’s. Visitors to Sweet Pete’s can check out this project even before the start of One Spark.
Pete Behringer, the owner of Sweet Pete’s, shared his thoughts about being a One Spark venue.
“We are very excited to be a part of One Spark and host to a creator,” he said.
Sosa is looking for support from the Jacksonville community and votes at the One Spark festival to get his garden project off the ground, and into the air, and he knows it is going to take dedication.
“It’s not like Field of Dreams— just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’re going to come,” he said. “We have to make people understand why this urban farm initiative is so important for Jacksonville.”