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  • Love, Passion, and Skill on a Plate

    I sit at a table beneath an oak tree at the Winter Haven Farmers Market. The music, breeze, and company are nice. I take a bite of Chef Ken’s candied yams, and suddenly, I’m back to swaying my legs on a little wooden bench – comfort food piping hot in mismatched dishes spread across my Nanny’s table. There’s barely enough room to navigate her tiny galley kitchen. Despite this, she manages to whip up generous helpings of tenderness in a modest space lined with red apple wallpaper. The kitchen is suffused with the heady aroma of decades’ worth of pecan chocolate cakes and fried chicken. Her love is buttermilk biscuits with ‘big butter’ and honey, fried okra, and chicken ‘n dumplings – and the baked mac and cheese she makes especially for me. These are the kinds of meals where seconds are a given – the kind that fills you, belly and soul. That’s the business Chef Ken is in – love on a plate. Kenneth’ Chef Ken’ James says his affinity for the culinary arts began at home. “My love of food and cooking started as a chunky kid who loved to watch my mom cook.” He reveled in being the first to taste his mom’s home cooking. A masterclass in multitasking, while sauteing shrimp, stirring grits, and plating orders, Chef Ken continues to tell his story. Moving on from his early kitchen memories, Chef Ken started cooking independently. “I found real joy in the process and even greater joy watching people eat my food, knowing that I was able to bring a moment of happiness,” he said. Chef Ken began working at a nonprofit in New York City called the Boys Club of New York. He was a coach for the competitive culinary class, which won three times back-to-back. The coach said he was proud to turn this team of middle school boys who didn’t know how to make toast into interested foodies who could compose a competition-winning dish. By 2014, he’d found his way into the kitchen full-time, unofficially starting Plates on Deck, making plates of food for coworkers and friends. “After that, it was just love – love, passion, and skill on a plate.” “It’s a celebration of global cuisine. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your culture is. If you have passion and you’re looking to evoke an emotion with comfort food from where you’re from – that’s soul food,” Chef Ken said. That’s why they describe their cuisine as ‘eclectic soul food.’ “What better way to bring people together than over a plate?” He and his wife, Ziomara Taveras, turned Plates on Deck into a catering business in October 2019, working out of their small apartment. Amid the pandemic, they offered seafood boils online. The blended family of eight moved from New York to Florida in 2020. Now, the family operates a catering business out of a commissary kitchen in Orlando and at Catapult in Lakeland, offering private chef services and popups at the farmer’s market. Ziomara handles everything behind the scenes, while son David James takes orders and is the business’s ‘unofficial baker. ‘ “He’s my right-hand man,” Chef Ken said of his son. If you’ve ever tasted their pleasantly sweet honey vanilla cornbread, you’ve got David to thank. It’s one of their most popular items — for good reason. “I’m teaching my kids you follow your dreams, and your gifts will make way for you,” he said, noting that Plates on Deck is bigger than just him. “I want to make sure they all know that if you build something for yourself, and you have a dream and a goal, and you work towards it – it will come to life.” The chef called Plates on Deck a legacy and a “beacon of hope and light to the next generation of culinary entrepreneurs.” “Our goal is to get our own brick and mortar, ideally in Lakeland or Winter Haven, but we want to be in Polk County,” Ziomara said. The family hopes to create something they call ‘The Pod’ – a home for their takeout business and catering, a space for pop-up chef’s tables, and to provide culinary training. They are looking to secure funding and hope to launch into a space by the end of the year. Chef Ken ‘brought us together’ over a dazzling plate of food, both in appearance and flavor. Succulent honey bourbon chicken is the star of the colorful dish, with supporting roles from Black Sheep Farms sauteed collard greens, doublebaked candied yams, and my favorite, the five-cheese mac attack. Nanny would be proud (or maybe jealous). Another must-try is the shrimp boil with corn, potatoes, and sausage. The shrimp are perfectly prepared and seasoned. They were also to-die-for atop Chef Ken’s creamy grits. If food is love, Chef Ken and his family have hearts of gold. They have a heart for what they do and who they serve. Love you right back, Plates on Deck. Plates on Deck FB: Plates on Deck Photography by Amy Sexson

  • Cypress Trees: A Conduit of Culture and History

    Woven into the fabric of Polk County’s heritage, cypress trees have a storied history and cultural significance. Native American cultures in Central Florida, such as the Calusa and the Timucuan, once utilized the durable wood of cypress for creating canoes and dwellings. You can see one of these dugout canoes at Polk’s Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve; it is displayed behind glass in one of the classrooms. If you have trouble finding it, ask the front desk volunteer for directions. At the turn of the 19th century, cypress trees were highly valued as a lumber source and often harvested for their heartwood, which has natural insect resistance. How many of us have ‘cedar chests’ that may actually be made of cypress heartwood? We may never know, but bald cypress heartwood shares many of the same properties as Eastern redcedar. Fun fact – Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) belongs to the Juniper genus (Juniperus) of the Cypress family (Cupressaceae). The so-called “true cedars” of the world belong to the Cedar genus (Cedrus) of the Pine family (Pinaceae). A more accurate common name for the species might be “Virginia juniper,” but I’ll stop with the botany lesson for now. Cypress trees feature prominently on historic postcards and merchandise showcasing Florida lakes and rivers. They are in the iconic images of water skiers on Cypress Garden’s merchandise and promotional materials, honoring their namesake trees. UNIQUE BIOLOGY OF CYPRESS TREES Cypress trees are among our few deciduous conifers in Florida. They shed their soft needles every fall or winter, depending on local conditions, and this leaf drop also benefits our local water quality. The needles contain high levels of tannins, which turn our blackwater swamps and rivers a tea-like color, helping reduce excess algae growth. While not the only species contributing to this natural process, cypress trees are significant players worth appreciating. Furthermore, cypress trees are capable of living for hundreds of years, outlasting many of our other common tree species. It’s not uncommon to find a cypress tree that predates the incorporation of Winter Haven, Lakeland, or even Polk County and Florida. Where older cypress trees are missing, it’s usually due to removal rather than natural causes. The bald cypress is celebrated not only for its longevity and ability to thrive in flooded conditions but also for its enigmatic biological features. The “knees” of cypress trees, protrusions emerging from the roots, remain a subject of fascination and ongoing research. Contrary to previous beliefs about their role in oxygen exchange, current studies suggest these structures may provide structural support in soft, muddy soils or have evolved for other, yet-to-be-understood reasons. This aspect of cypress biology underscores the tree’s adaptation to its environment and our ongoing discovery about local species and ecosystems. THE ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF CYPRESS TREES Cypress trees, particularly the bald cypress, are prevalent in the southeastern United States’ wetlands, providing critical ecosystem services. Their dense root systems stabilize shorelines, reduce erosion, slow waves (natural and boat wake), and filter pollutants and sediments. Current research suggests the oxygenated root zone creates an ideal habitat for microorganisms, which help filter water and improve overall water quality. This microbial hot zone is considered one of the ecosystem’s most crucial parts for nutrient cycling and excess nutrient removal. Vegetated shorelines, supported by cypress trees and other emergent vegetation, are essential for maintaining clean waterways in Florida. In our wetlands, the soft soils and humus (accumulated decaying leaf matter, not to be confused with the food: hummus!) collected around and between cypress knees act as natural sponges. They absorb excess water during floods and release it during dry spells, playing a critical role in water management. Additionally, wetland exchange with our lakes has been shown to be a vital component of a healthy lake ecosystem. Locally, lakes with robust connections to wetlands generally appear clearer and have lower nutrient loading because the wetlands serve as natural water treatment zones. The Lake Conine Wetland Project in Winter Haven is a notable example of wetland restoration, designed to reconnect Lake Conine with its historic wetlands and improve water quality. Urban lakes, including Lake Conine, often suffer from stormwater runoff pollution and excessive nutrients from their watersheds. The project’s completion led Winter Haven Natural Resources to observe significant water quality improvements in Lake Conine, showcasing the positive impact of targeted restoration efforts. Another example is the Se7en Wetlands Park in Lakeland. Though not natural wetlands, these constructed wetlands serve as the final treatment stage for wastewater leaving the city of Lakeland. The treated water is then released into the North Prong of the Alafia River, directly flowing into Tampa Bay. Se7en Wetlands Park is open to the public seven days a week from 7 am, to 7 pm. PRESERVING THE LEGACY OF CYPRESS TREES Cypress trees are integral to the ecological integrity and cultural heritage of Polk County, teaching us lessons in resilience, adaptability, and biodiversity. As stewards of our waterways, it is our collective responsibility to protect these stately treasures. Let’s celebrate and safeguard the cypress trees of Polk County, ensuring they continue to thrive as cornerstones of Florida’s natural and cultural landscapes. Oh, and Happy Earth Month Polk County! For more insights into the conservation and importance of cypress trees in Polk County, readers are encouraged to connect with the UF/IFAS Extension Office in Bartow or email me at You can also find my Extension program on Instagram at @PolkNR.

  • 2024 Lakeland Book Crawl

    Get your reading glasses and bookmarks ready – it’s time for the 2024 Lakeland Book Crawl! The annual bookish bash will take place April 22-27. The Lakeland Book Crawl is a six-day tour de force of books, books, and more books! The book crawl aims to bring booksellers, book lovers, and the greater Lakeland community together. Stop at each store throughout the week and meet the owners and staff, purchase books from local booksellers, and join along in the fun and unique experience each bookstore has to offer. The book crawl leads up to National Independent Bookstore on Saturday, April 27, where indie bookstores all across the country celebrate together. 2024 BOOK CRAWL INFORMATION HIGHLIGHTS: • Each day, a different bookstore will be featured with daily discounts and promotions. • They have provided additional book crawling itineraries via their website, including the three-day “Weekday Wanderer” or “Weekend Warrior.” • Check in at each location to be entered into their giveaway. There will be one grand prize winner who will receive a unique bookish prize. Lakeland Book Crawl

  • 420 High Dollies Recipe

    Happy 4/20! Not to blow ‘smoke’ up Judy’s booty, but these High Dollies are seriously delish and really do the trick. All marijuana products used for this recipe were bought legally with a valid Florida Medical Marijuana license. This recipe is only for those 18+ with a valid Florida Medical Marijuana license. Wink. Wink. You can totally make these without THC. They are decadent. First, a term you’ll need to know: Kief. According to, “Kief is the cannabis flower’s most potent part, containing a high concentration of cannabinoids and terpenes in its tiny, sticky crystals.” INGREDIENTS 1-4 grams kief 1 cup unsalted butter, melted 3 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs (about 14 ounces) 11-ounce bag butterscotch chips 12-ounce bag semisweet chocolate chips 8-ounce bag unsweetened shredded coconut 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk ½ cup chopped walnuts (optional) INSTRUCTIONS 1. Collect a year’s worth of kief from your grinder. Or buy kief directly from dispensary. 1- 4 grams is recommended for 1 pound of butter. We used 2.5 grams. 2. Spread out kief on parchment paper and bake at 200 degrees for 10 minutes. This decarbs the kief, activating the THC. 3. While that is cooking, melt two sticks of butter on the stove over a low temp. 4. Add the decarbed kief to the melted butter and stir constantly for 5-10 minutes. This infuses the butter with THC. 5. Strain butter with cheesecloth or coffee filter. 6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8 or 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper. 7. Combine melted butter and graham cracker crumbs in large bowl until thoroughly combined. 8. Pack graham cracker mixture into bottom of lined pan. Layer ¾ of butterscotch chips, chocolate chips, and coconut over the graham cracker base. 9. Pour condensed milk over it all. 10. Top with remaining butterscotch chips, chocolate chips, coconut, and optional walnuts. Go as heavy or as light as you want here! 11. Bake in oven for 25 minutes or until condensed milk starts to bubble. 12. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack. Serve warm, at room temp, or chilled in the fridge! 13. A 1x3-inch piece of our dose was very chill. Start with a small piece before going ham. SOME JUDY DOOBIE NOTES: • Decarbing the kief will create a very strong scent in your home. Do not do this before your mom comes over. • This recipe is more assembling than cooking, so feel free to hit the bowl a few times while you’re baking. Recipe adapted from: Trish’s Hello Dollies from “Matty Matheson: Home Style Cookery: A Home Cookbook.”

  • Too Cool for School: InnerG Café

    There’s a bright yellow school bus on the side of the road on the way to Lake Alfred that’ll teach you a thing or two about good vegan food. Eimi El serves 100 percent plant-based comfort food with soy-free and gluten-free options from her converted school bus food truck. El, from North Carolina, moved to Florida in 2000 and has lived in Davenport since 2018. “I wanted to be vegan 20 years ago when nobody was vegan,” she remembered. The only meat replacement she could find at the time was tofu, and she wasn’t interested in eating that, so she kept eating meat. Years later, when she and her then-boyfriend watched the trending documentary “What the Health,” they decided to go vegan that night. The documentary touched on the health implications of the standard American diet and the way animals in factory farming are treated. The next day, the couple threw out all the non-vegan food and went grocery shopping to restock their pantry. El has been living a plant-based lifestyle ever since. “I’ve always loved to cook—even before I went vegan,” she said. Friends encouraged her to start her own restaurant. They said people needed to taste her cooking. In 2022, she began selling food out of her house. She also created a children’s curriculum she planned to launch over the summer and worked as a lifestyle and wellness coach. After returning from a month-long trip to Mexico, she started penning her second cookbook, “Food is a Love Language” which she self-published. Her previous cookbook was “35 Days, 35 Delicious Recipes for the Vegan Lifestyle.” She also met with a realtor and began searching for restaurant spaces. However, all of them were too expensive and came unfurnished. “I thought, let me get intentional about this year and my life and my goals. So, I started 369 Manifestation.” According to, “The 369 method involves writing down what you’d like to manifest three times in the morning, six times during the day, and nine times in the evening.” “The first entry that I wrote on January 17 was ‘InnerG Café food truck,’” she said. Three days later, her realtor emailed her about the school bus location. She didn’t see the email until two weeks later. Serendipitously, when El sent the realtor a text interested in seeing the bus, that’s precisely where the realtor was, showing another client. On February 2, 2023, El left work to view the location. “When I walked in, I felt the same energy as when I bought my house. This is it. This is for me.” PEDAL TO THE METAL Seven days later, she got the keys and had her grand opening in March. The school bus was turnkey, pun intended. It was initially to be a Mexican food truck, but never opened. All the equipment was brand new. “God was like, ‘Okay, girl, you said you wanted it. So, here you go.’” El stuck with a comfort food menu because that’s what she was used to cooking, and that’s what people sought – food like burgers and fries, mac and cheese, and nachos. “It’s been evolving, and I’ve been adding different things to the menu over time,” she said. She finds the most joy in “the people, their reactions, and their enjoyment of the food. People don’t believe it’s vegan because of the items on the menu.” Hungry patrons can find InnerG in her roadside school bus, or at events like the Aquarian Market, Tampa Bay Veg Fest, and Lakeland Veg Fest. She recently attended a career fair in Winter Haven, where she spoke with students about the culinary side of plant-based food. She also talked with administrators about introducing that information into the school system so children who want to further their education in that field can do so. A+ FOR INNERG Behind the bus, beyond a rod iron gate that has seen better days, a paver-lined path led us to an open-sky dining space with bus seat booths and wooden tables. A fountain gurgles in the background, and string lights hang overhead. Our anticipation spilled over with the creek of a school bus door opening. El brought out diner-style red baskets filled with vegan comfort food. All the dishes are El’s recipes and hold their weight. First, we tried a popular dish, the deluxe cheezeburger –a quarter pound walnut and white mushroom patty on a bun piled with mustard, ketchup, mayo, red onion, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheeze. Though a hamburger and vegan cheezeburger aren’t identical, the essence was there with its own unique tasty flavor. The walnuts and mushrooms give that same fatty ‘beef’ flavor with a hint of earthiness. I won’t name names, but there are restaurants with traditional burgers that I would skip in place of an InnerG burger. The phish sandwich was another A+ dish. Air-fried heart of palm is seasoned with Seefood InnerG blend on a bun with homemade tartar sauce and lettuce. It was delicious and reminiscent of a certain fast food fish sandwich that rhymes with ShmcShmonalds. While we’re at it, that same chain comes to mind with the cheezeburger eggrolls, air-fried eggroll wrappers stuffed with walnut crumbles, diced onion, mozzarella and cheddar cheeze shreds, with a side of InnerG dipping sauce. It tastes just like a Shmig Shmack. El recently started serving breakfast. She presented us with two air-fried breakfast rolls (gluten-free sausage crumble, ackee “egg,” roasted red potatoes with peppers and onion), a homemade waffle, a side of date syrup, and a sauce that tasted just like melted butter. Was it delicious? You butter believe it. Other honor-roll dishes include potato salad and Haitian mac-n-cheeze with elbow noodles, shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeze, epis, and mixed pepper sauce blended in a homemade cashew cheeze sauce. I kept coming back to the potato salad. The potatoes were prepared perfectly—cooked through but still firm enough not to turn to mush. You could taste onion, bell pepper, and dill in each bite. We washed it down with InnerG tea, made with spring water, pineapple, grated ginger, maple syrup, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and refreshing blueberry lemonade. “Two of the biggest misconceptions [about vegan food] are that it’s expensive and that it’s not good,” El said. “I want to change that narrative.” The InnerG founder noted that the cost is minimal if one doesn’t shop for processed foods. “It’s not an expensive lifestyle to live. It does take a lot of time, but it’s worth it.” InnerG Cafe 3500 Lake Alfred Rd, Winter Haven (Look for the school bus across from A.O. Construction) (689) 253-7315 FB: InnerG Cafe IG @innergcafe Photography by Amy Sexson

  • Shout Out Girl Scout: Planting for Pollinators

    Thirteen-year-old River Selser loves the outdoors. The 7th grader is in Girl Scout Troop #74811. She enjoys swimming, horseback riding, camping, playing with her cats, and paddle boarding. “We are very active and love going camping and exploring the outdoors,” River said. “We even took a trip to Savannah, Georgia, last year and we went on a tour around the town. We went to Tybee Island and took a tour of the lighthouse! The whole troop had a great time!” The Girl Scout aspires to work as a librarian and an air traffic controller when she’s older, perhaps with a bit of environmental work on the side. Part of her love for the outdoors has anything to do with butterflies and bees. She’s done many small butterfly gardens in her backyard. “When I thought about my love for them, I wanted to do something to help them thrive!” she said. River, who started Girl Scouts when she was five, is working towards her Silver Award – the highest award a Girl Scout Cadette can earn. The project she started to earn the award is called “Planting for Pollinators” (P4P). She is working to raise funds for signage and a pollinator-friendly garden at Michael V. Lewis Arboretum in Winter Haven. According to River, “Pollinators like butterflies and bees are declining due to habitat loss and food source reduction. Pollinators depend on a wide variety of plants, trees, and shrubs. When people build neighborhoods and install mono-culture (one type of plant like grass-only) yards, they reduce and sometimes destroy the plant diversity needed to support pollinator populations.” The two signs she plans to install are first to educate the public on pollinators and what they do. The other is to inform the public about some Floridafriendly and pollinator-friendly plant choices that people can include in their yards. River’s target audience is visitors of all ages to the nature park near her home. “Park visitors currently enjoy hiking trails at Lewis Arboretum while enjoying the natural area. Providing informational signage and a demonstration planting garden to promote pollinators and pollinator-friendly plant choices will passively educate my target audience on ways that they, too, can make a difference by planting for pollinators.” “The plants selected for the demonstration garden are Florida-friendly, drought tolerant, low maintenance, easy to source or propagate, and have the potential to attract a diverse variety of pollinators. Currently, plants that we are considering include fire bush, dutchman’s pipe vine (maypop), milkweed, and beautyberry to be part of the change,” said River. “The two signs (one: pollinators of Central Florida and the other: pollinator plants of Central Florida) will be installed at the trailhead of Lewis Arboretum, where the demonstration pollinator garden will be planted. These signs will last up to (and possibly more than) 10 years while educating park visitors on the importance of Central Florida pollinators and plants. The demonstration garden itself will demonstrate to park visitors several examples of CentralFlorida Friendly pollinator plants that are available for use in their own residential, commercial, and schoolyards. It is my team’s hope that park visitors may select a plant or two from the demonstration garden to purchase and install in their own yards to support pollinators of Central Florida.” The land on which she is planting and adding signage is owned by Green Horizon Land Trust, which works to preserve and protect environmentally sensitive lands along the Lake Wales Ridge. If you or someone you know would like to support Green Horizon Land Trust and Planting for Pollinators, visit to donate. “Earning my Silver Award will mean that I helped better the community around me for future generations and that I helped educate the public about the importance of pollinators and planting pollinator-friendly plants,” said River. Photograph provided

  • Florida Mission of Mercy FREE DENTAL CARE!

    For the first time since 2014, the Florida Mission of Mercy (FLA-MOM) will take place in Polk County. The free, two-day dental clinic hosted by the FDA Foundation is slated for May 31 – June 1, 2024, at the RP Funding Center (701 West Lime St., Lakeland). The FDA Foundation, which started in 1980, is the philanthropic arm of the Florida Dental Association. Over the years, they’ve given back to the community in various ways, from dental scholarships to support for clinics and programs across the state and coordinating volunteer efforts. The FDA Foundation has three primary programs: Donated Dental Services, a partnership with the national organization Dental Lifeline Network in which dentists can volunteer in their office; Project Dentists Care, a statewide safety net listing of clinics and programs which the FDA Foundation provides funding to some annually; and Florida Mission of Mercy, a signature program they coordinate every year. Florida Mission of Mercy (FLA-MOM) is a large-scale professional dental clinic that provides care to any patient at no cost to them, with the goal of serving the under-served and uninsured in Florida – those who would otherwise go without care. Lakeland’s will be the organization’s ninth clinic, with previous FLA-MOM events in Tampa, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Orlando, Ft. Meyers, Tallahassee, and West Palm Beach. The impact they’ve had over eight years can’t be overstated. Since 2014, FLA-MOM has provided $14.67 million in dental care, treated over 13,000 patients, completed over 90,000 procedures, and had over 12,000 volunteers. The May 31 – June 1 RP Funding Center clinic will have 300 dentists on site with an additional 500-600 hygienists and assistants. Beyond that, the clinic boasts pre-dental students, dental hygiene students, and around 2,000 community volunteers. They hope to serve 2,000 patients over the twoday event. “There is a huge unmet need in the state of Florida and across the country for routine access to dental care,” said R. Jai Gillum, director of foundation affairs for the FDA Foundation. The Mission of Mercy patients will receive patient education, medical screenings, a panoramic X-ray, and a dental exam. From there, treatment varies from fillings, cleanings, extractions, limited root canals, pediatric treatment, and prosthodontics (partials, bridges, and dentures). “We have patients who leave our clinic with mouths full of gauze, and they are overwhelmingly grateful for this service – in awe at what we are able to do and have done,” said Gillum. “What’s really important to us is the dignity of our clinic and making sure our patients feel dignity while they’re getting care.” “We get calls every single day in our office from patients across the state that just need help. They’re trying to find a program or place they can go,” said Gillum. “I didn’t have the money to go to the dentist, so I was suffering. […] These are tears of joy. I am so thankful for everything you guys have done for me,” said one grateful FLA-MOM patient. FLA-MOM is coming to Lakeland thanks in part to Representative Sam Killebrew and Senator Colleen Burton, who championed legislation last year that provides funding to the program. This is only the second time FLA-MOM has received state funding, and it remains one of the only states to receive state funding. “This is not a solution. We want to help, especially with acute needs within an area. More than anything, it brings attention to what is needed,” Gillum said. The event is more than free dental treatment; it catalyzes change in statewide funding for dental programs. FLA-MOM provides data on the patients they treat to local and state officials. According to Gillum, the need is far greater than the 2,000 people they’ll be able to help in Lakeland. Gillum called the clinic “life-changing” for volunteers and patients alike. Of the providers, she said, “This gives them a chance to provide care to people, some of whom haven’t had treatment in years.” One dentist volunteering at the West Palm Beach FLA-MOM event last year noted, “It’s more rewarding for me than for all the people I’m helping.” 2024 FLORIDA MISSION OF MERCY DETAILS: The 2024 Florida Mission of Mercy Veterans Dental Event will be held on May 30 at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. You must register for an appointment. See their website listed at the end of the story. Veterans will register for an appointment time on Thursday, May 30, to complete paperwork, X-rays, and a dental exam. They will return at 7 am on Friday, May 31, to complete dental treatment. The 2024 Florida Mission of Mercy will take place from May 31 to June 1, 2024, at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. Doors open at 7 am. Patients are seen on a first-come, first-served basis. The goal is to treat 2,000 patients in two days. Information about treatment: • Adults must be willing to wait in line and not have medically compromising conditions to be treated. • Photo identification, social security number, insurance information, or other personal identification/documentation is not required. • Children under the age of 18 can be treated, but a parent or guardian must accompany them. • Interpreters will be available to assist in some languages, but please bring an interpreter if you do not speak English. Florida Mission of Mercy FB: Florida Dental Association IG @fda_dental Photography provided

  • The Breast Cancer Foundation of Central Florida

    You’ve just received the news. It’s breast cancer. The diagnosis shatters you. Questions pile one on top of the other in your mind. What are you going to do? What toll will the treatment take? Are you going to lose your breasts? Are you going to lose your life? How will your family cope? How will you afford medical bills on top of all your basic needs? This is a familiar crisis to many women across Central Florida. Thankfully, there is an organization that seeks to ease the burden of those going through cancer treatment. Nearly one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, according to the Breast Cancer Foundation of Central Florida (BCFCF). This disease ravages the lives of those it touches, including family, friends, and finances. The BCFCF financial assistance program was started in 2017 to provide help with household expenses while a breast cancer patient is in active treatment. This includes covering the cost of rent or mortgage payments, utility payments, car payments, car repairs, home or auto insurance, or other necessary expenses. Based in Lakeland, the organization works with communities across the west to the east coast of Central Florida. They assisted 130 women in Polk County alone last year. BCFCF also provides a Children’s Fund that supports the unique needs of children in the homes of families with a member in active treatment for breast cancer. This assistance has included orthodontic continuation, eyeglasses, clothing, birthday and holiday gifts, school supplies, childcare, and infant supplies. According to their website, “BCFCF reaches out to the local, Central Florida communities we serve through breast cancer education and awareness initiatives, such as panel discussions, speaking engagements, health fairs, and web-based resources. BCFCF works to share both facts and myths about breast cancer, spreads the word that breast cancer can affect all ages and sexes, and is passionate about advocating for early detection and yearly mammogram screenings. We are doing our best to impart the importance of routine, monthly self-breast exams starting by age twenty.” In the last year, they’ve partnered with Moffitt, BayCare, and Florida Cancer Specialists to provide wigs and chemo caps to patients who can’t afford them and have started survivor groups. In addition to their annual Pink Ribbon Gala, the Breast Cancer Foundation of Central Florida hosts Jeepin’ for a Cure in October. Last year, they raised $18K and look to triple that number this year. One hundred percent of the proceeds raised go directly to breast cancer patients. Ashley Lloyd is the outreach director and only employee for the Breast Cancer Foundation of Central Florida. She was also a recipient of their care. Two years ago, Lloyd was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. “You don’t know what you’re going to do when you’re diagnosed. How am I going to feed my kids, pay for their soccer camp, and pay my mortgage?” she said. After receiving assistance from BCFCF, she fell in love with their mission, quit her job, and started with the organization in November 2022. Since Lloyd took over, there’s been a 73% increase in awareness of their cause. In 2023, BCFCF gave out nearly $300K and saw an increase in patient applications by almost 50 percent. The originization is always in need of donations and volunteers, but spreading awareness of what they do is just as valuable. “We want people to know that we exist. We’re not just here to give assistance. We also have people who can mentor you if you’re diagnosed,” said Lloyd. MARBIE’S STORY Marbelis ‘Marbie’ Garcia Wonders is originally from South Florida. She’s lived in Lakeland since 2006. Wonders is a fifth-grade teacher at Willow Oak School in Mulberry, has been married for over 26 years, and has two grown children. Wonders went for a regular checkup in the summer of 2022. She was turning 50 in October and hadn’t had a mammogram the previous two years because of the pandemic. “I wasn’t very worried about it because I don’t have a history of cancer in my family,” she said. Her son was a senior in high school and a member of the Dreadnaught marching band. The team was headed for a championship, and Wonders was president of the band boosters and partially in charge of the concession stand. Life was busy. Then, she was called in for a second mammogram. Following that, she was told to come back for a biopsy. Wonders began to grow worried. “They called me back in late September and informed me of my diagnosis over the phone – that I had breast cancer,” she said. She was diagnosed with Stage 1 of an aggressive form of breast cancer called HER2+. “I was very stunned because I felt fine,” she said. “For them to tell me that there’s something wrong with my body when I didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with my body was counterintuitive to me. It was really something I had to wrap my mind around. That was a tough pill for me to swallow because there was nothing wrong with me.” Wonders was rushed to the oncologist and the breast surgeon to decide on a treatment plan. She was given the diagnosis on September 22, saw the breast surgeon on September 26, and was in surgery for a lumpectomy by November 1. Her case required a second surgery on November 15 to clear the margins. Following these two surgeries, Wonders had 12 weeks of chemotherapy, 21 rounds of radiation – five days a week for four weeks – and had to take Herceptin and Perjeta every three weeks for a year. The financial demands began to take their toll when someone from Watson Clinic recommended she apply with the Breast Cancer Foundation of Central Florida. “Things were starting to pile up at the house as far as bills go,” she said. Her engineer husband lost his job in 2008, and the family went through bankruptcy and foreclosure. “It’s just been in the last four or five years we’ve finally started to come out of it and be in a much better place financially.” They’d gotten their homeowner’s insurance bill, and because of an aging roof on the house, their mortgage payment skyrocketed by $600 a month. “What are we going to do now?” she thought. Then, BCFCF accepted her application. They agreed to pay her utility bills in full for four months. “That alone was a big help,” she said. “Them paying that one bill was enough to give us a little breathing room to figure out what we needed to do. […] It was one thing off my plate that I didn’t have to worry about. I could put it on them and focus on other things. When you have so many things going on, even one less stressor was helpful.” Today, Wonders is in remission with no evidence of disease detected. She is finished with treatment and has since had two clear mammograms. The fifthgrade teacher hopes to pay it forward with the organization that helped her during her battle with breast cancer. Asked if her diagnosis changed the way she lived her life at all, Wonders replied, “I was someone who didn’t sweat the small stuff to begin with. I definitely don’t do it now.” Breast Cancer Foundation of Central Florida P.O. Box 2508, Lakeland, FL FB: Breast Cancer Foundation of Central Florida IG @breastcancerfoundationcfl Photographs Provided

  • Polk Museum of Art $8M Expansion

    Approximately 140,000 visitors meander the galleries at Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College annually. Boasting more than 3,000 works of art in their permanent collection – including works by Rembrandt, Andy Warhol, Faith Ringgold, Pablo Picasso, Miriam Schapiro, James Rosenquist, Barbara Kruger, Chagall, Damien Hirst, Hung Liu, and others – the Smithsonian affiliated institution is bursting at the seams. The Museum was founded in 1966 by the Junior Welfare League of Lakeland as The Youth Museum of Imperial Polk County. In 1983, it received national accreditation as an art museum and adopted the name “Polk Museum of Art.” The current building, designed by Ernie Straughn, was formally dedicated in September 1988. It was designed to house 500 objects in its collection. In February 2022, the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College announced plans for a then-$6M, 10,000-square-foot expansion and renovation project. The project has since grown to $8M and will encompass 14,000 square feet of gallery, classroom, and art laboratory space in addition to the current 38,000-squarefoot building. The two-story addition will be located on the northwest side of the present building. Executive Director and Chief Curator for Polk Museum of Art, Dr. Alexander Rich, noted the expansion was a 30-year dream for the institution. The current facility offers approximately 18,000 square feet of exhibitable gallery space. “There’s always been a great desire to add to this building,” said the executive director. “With the affiliation with Florida Southern College in 2017, our aspirations grew, and as it became an academic museum and a community museum, we were trying to bring bigger exhibitions and drive larger audiences through,” said Dr. Rich. “We are elated to build upon the legacy of this impressive museum of fine arts, and through the affiliation of FSC and the Museum, now pursue an expanded agenda to offer exhibitions of our treasured permanent collection and welcome an increasing number of visiting exhibitions from the great museums of the world,” said Dr. Anne B. Kerr, president of Florida Southern College and member of the PMA Board of Directors. They broke ground on the 14,000-square-foot expansion in May 2023 and are projected to open in Fall 2024. Gallery space will be principally added, with each space convertible into lecture, education, and multipurpose use. The expansion will triple the Museum’s current major exhibition space, “enabling the Museum to display more of its permanent collection and to expand its collections storage.” “A lot of the dream was how we could imagine what a museum of the 21st century truly looks like,” said Dr. Rich. “That becomes an interesting futuristic addition to the 1988 building.” Funding for the project comes from private donations as well as city and county support. Dr. Rich notes they hope to receive state support in the future. “I’m excited about the idea that we are going to live up to our expectations and far exceed them in people’s minds. To give people who come to the museum an opportunity to spend a half-day here or more and have so much to look at and learn, and to appreciate all the hard work our team puts into creating exceptional experiences that are both fun and enormously educational.” “It’s a dream to add to the collection. Because our space is so limited, we’ve been very purposeful with any additions to the collection,” said Dr. Rich. Though they accept gifts to the Museum as often as possible, they have not acquired many works because of the scant space. Museum patrons can expect more numerous and extensive exhibitions in the new space. PMA’s current show, “Rockwell / Wyeth: Icons of Americana” (Jan. 27, 2024 - May 26, 2024), is the Museum’s most expansive exhibition to date, with 366 objects taking up all of the main gallery space on the first floor. Dr. Rich says there are more exhibits of this caliber to come. There will also be more opportunities for experimental exhibitions, exhibitions for new media, for students at Florida Southern College and surrounding schools, and educational programming. The latter is especially important to Dr. Rich, Chair of the Department of Art History Museum Studies at Florida Southern College, housed at the Museum. “I’m excited for the opportunities we have to grow the next generation of museum and nonprofit professionals,” he said. “We see the expansion as a hub for community and professionals working in the arts and nonprofit fields, and pre-professionals [...] to give them resources to succeed and also help support this world as we move into future generations.” They are looking to add an undergraduate and master’s program in Museum Studies as well. The expanded space will also include “new, innovative, multi-use gallery, education, and archival spaces in which to study, learn from, and appreciate art across time and cultures, special events spaces, classrooms, and additional storage and restoration areas.” Dr. Rich notes that he loves the narrative the museum as a whole will share. Guests will enter through the current entrance of the 1988 building and step into the future – the expanded gallery space. “We are a free-admission museum and intend to remain a freeadmission museum. To be able to offer a museum like the one we have at the moment and to offer an expanded museum in the coming months is extraordinary and unusual for a community like ours,” said Dr. Rich. “I always hope that people come through the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College and are surprised to find a museum of this caliber here in Lakeland, in Polk County, or Central Florida, for that matter.” The project also includes renovations to the existing 1988 structure, including to the current entrance, new flooring throughout the first level, and updated second-floor galleries, classrooms, and office spaces. “We want to be on the leading edge of what art museums should be,” said Dr. Rich. The opening of the new expansion is sure to draw fanfare. Though the Museum is keeping exact details close to the vest, Dr. Rich divulges that there will be several launch exhibitions—a large one in the 1988 building, another anchor exhibit in the expanded space, and several other shows from their permanent collection. Consider becoming a member to support the Polk Museum of Art and keep admission free. By joining the Museum, you’re supporting arts education, exhibitions, educational programming, and operations, and investing in the arts in your community, according to the Museum’s membership page. Additionally, you’ll gain access to a myriad of perks and reciprocal benefits, including free afterschool art programming for young artists, free admission to Bok Tower Gardens, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa during February and July, and more. To become a PMA member, visit their website, listed below. Polk Museum of Art 800 E Palmetto St, Lakeland (863) 688-7743 FB: Polk Museum of Art IG @polkmusuemofart Photograph by Amy Sexson, Renderings Provided

  • Pizza Party

    DID YOU KNOW The first-ever pizzeria in the world is the Port’Alba in Italy. Established in 1830, the store cooked their pies in an oven featuring Mount Vesuvius lava. The active volcano lies on the Bay of Naples. Pizza only came to America in the late 1800s. The food had been a staple in Naples for years. Italians started migrating to the United States bringing their flavor preferences along. Pizza in America started on the East Coast. The first areas to start commercializing pizza were Boston, Connecticut, New Haven, New Jersey, New York, and Trenton. Also, these places received the highest influx of immigrants from South Italy by the shift of the century. The first pizzeria in the United States opened in 1905. Italian-American Gennaro Lombardi started a mini-pizza business at his street-front shop in Manhattan. While the shop no longer stands in its original location, Lombardi’s is still operating. A returning GI invented the gas-fired pizza oven in 1945. World War II got American soldiers craving pizza from their service in Europe. It inspired GI Ira Nevin for his Baker’s Pride invention, allowing an easier and less-expensive way to bake and retail pizza. Pizzas would only sell by the pie, exclusively. It lasted until 1933 when Patsy Lancieri of Patsy’s Pizzeria, New York initiated the selling-by-slice trend. Pizza ATMs debuted in the United States in 2016. The first machine stands at Xavier University, Ohio, where it holds 70 pizzas. Customers can place orders on the touchscreen, which will then command the machine to heat then serve the pizza. Pizza Hut made history as the first pizza chain to send a pizza delivery to space. The pizza chain sent a 6-inch salami pizza via a Russian rocket to the International Space Station. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachov ate the pizza and took a photo. The record for the biggest pizza in the world has a diameter of 131 feet. Made in 2012, the colossal pizza tipped the scale at 51,257 pounds. The ingredients included 19,800 lbs gluten-free flour, 8,800 lbs mozzarella cheese, and 10,000 lbs tomato sauce. PIZZA TRIVIA What is the most popular pizza topping in the US? What is the second most popular pizza topping in the US? What is America’s least favorite topping? What day of the year are the most pizzas ordered? What percentage of Americans eat pizza at least once a month? Where was the classic Hawaiian pizza with pineapple, cheese, ham & tomato sauce created? What year did Bagel Bites make their debut? On average, how many slices of pizza does an American eat in one year? What is the largest pizza chain in the world? How many billion pizzas are sold in the US in one year? What day of the week is the most popular day to order a pizza? In the movie “Toy Story,” the main characters Buzz and Woody find themselves at a themed pizza restaurant. What was the name of the restaurant? What type of pizza did surfer Jeff Spicoli order in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High?” How long does it take Domino’s “World’s Fastest Pizza Maker” to make a single large pizza (to the nearest second)? What percentage of Americans prefer thin crust? Answers Pepperoni Sausage Anchovy Super Bowl Sunday 93% Canada 1985 46 Pizza Hut 3 billion Saturday Pizza Planet Double cheese & sausage 11 seconds 61% Information gathered from

  • WonderHere

    Little hands tend to rosemary, garlic chives, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts on a 10-acre farm in Lakeland. They collect eggs from chickens and plant bluebells, among other farm chores. They take a moment to pet Gilbert, the resident cat. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are well-balanced with play, creativity, and open green space at this private microschool. Fresh air and freedom inspire joyful shouts and giggles. WonderHere, a learn-and-play farm and schoolhouse for pre-K and elementary-aged children, cultivates wonder and a love of learning in its students. According to WonderHere, “We strive to holistically develop children who are curious, empathetic, community-minded, problem solvers, and creative leaders.” The school promotes play-based, project-driven, and personalized education, with the schoolhouse divided into areas of interest, including a library, science lab, project room, study, and a STEM room. Whether attending a half or full day at WonderHere, students receive direct instruction in language arts and math with an assigned teacher. But at WonderHere, it isn’t about letter grades and test scores – it’s about exploring that intangible curiosity we lose somewhere along the way to adolescence. Or maybe we don’t ‘lose’ it. Perhaps it isn’t appropriately nurtured and withers. That curiosity – that wonder – needs tending like the bee balm and milkweed in the garden. Alongside learning the core subjects, kids at WonderHere can traverse the schoolhouse according to their pace and areas of interest. Ten-year-old Eva likes “everything” about WonderHere but has a particular affinity for acting class and hanging out with her friends. Matias, a curly-haired seven-year-old, enjoys the freedom and “being able to run around.” Gavin, age 12, has a unique perspective on the microschool. He attended WonderHere before his family moved. He went to traditional school for a time before returning to the Lakeland farm and schoolhouse. “You didn’t have as much freedom to do what you wanted,” he said of public school. He enjoys that he doesn’t have to change classes and remain seated. “We can move around and work with our friends,” he said. A SPARK OF WONDER Former public school teachers and best friends Jessica Zivkovich and Tiffany Thenor founded WonderHere in 2016 as an urban alternative learning space. “We questioned if there was a different way to do school,” said Zivkovich, who has a Bachelor’s in Exceptional Student Education and a Master’s in Reading Education from Southeastern University and over ten years of teaching experience. Co-founder Tiffany Thenor also graduated from Southeastern University with her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. She taught in a Title 1 School for seven years. The school started as a learn-and-play homeschool enrichment program with ten kids. Ten grew to over 30 the following year as WonderHere transitioned to a full-time school. “The whole goal when we started WonderHere was to make learning fun again – to preserve the joys of childhood. We believe in academic growth and progress, but we do it in a way that honors the whole child, that brings joy and spark into their whole learning experience,” said Zivkovich. They started with the intention of being an urban school with a space downtown near the Polk Theatre. They had no green space but fenced in a parking lot where children could play. “We grew out of our downtown location, and then we started pursuing the farm,” said Zivkovich. Now on a sprawling ten-acre farm with a garden, farm animals, and plenty of space to run and play, WonderHere enters its eighth year. “This is a lot more green space than we ever dreamed of,” said Thenor. The school was given several goats for the farm. With no idea how to care for the animals, they called in Karrie Tidlund, who has worked with animals and gardening her entire life. She has an associate degree in business administration, a Bachelor of Science degree in Integrative Studies, and 15 years of experience working with children. As the farm director, Tidlund leads programs, including Toddler Farm School, The Outdoor Classroom, and Wilderness Workshop. Tidlund walked us through a shaded copse of trees they call “the woods,” where a cluster of kids were playing and exploring. We entered the garden at the back of the farm. “When we got this farm, it was just grass,” she said. “We’ve built this from the ground up, and the students have been a part of that.” Tidlund means that literally. Early on, students heaved wheelbarrows full of soil, compost, and woodchips to build out the garden that they now tend, with Tidlund’s help, of course. “Every classroom in our schoolhouse has a garden bed. They’re learning to grow different things,” Tidlund said. “They weed it, they do pest control, they harvest it, they do the whole process.” Last fall, they installed a wildflower garden, planting flowers like zinnias, bluebells, and sunflowers. The flowers will be a boon to the school as they’ll sell them on special Family Farm Days. The produce grown by the students also helps to support WonderHere as Tidlund sets up a booth to sell it at the Winter Haven Farmers Market a couple of times a month. What do the kids benefit from all this open space and time playing in the dirt? “Fresh air,” said Tidlund. “Honestly, they’re just learning, and they’re able to interact with it differently. To know what a garden is and to put your hands in the dirt and experience it is another thing entirely.” She noted how excited the children were to see what had changed since their last time working in the garden. They also love to find caterpillars and butterflies among the milkweed. “We don’t use chemicals in the garden, so the kids can pick and eat right from the garden,” Tidlund said. “That has gotten some kids to eat vegetables they have never been willing to eat before. […] I think that experience has done wonders for them to understand where their food comes from.” “I had a great educational experience as a child, but I didn’t learn that kind of stuff,” said Zivkovich. FREEDOM TO LEARN AND GROW “Some of the biggest things we did differently when we left public school are that we don’t do letter grades, we don’t classify kids by grade level, and we don’t do standardized testing,” said Thenor. This means more flexibility for students and teachers alike. “Because we don’t isolate kids by their grade level, they have much more growth. They can grow as slowly or as quickly as it takes. They’re not compared to each other.” WonderHere takes a gentle approach early on. “Traditional education puts such a huge emphasis on learning to read proficiently and write at the pre-K, kindergarten level. And if a kid is ready for it, that’s great. Most kids need time to grow their social and emotional wellness, their time to play, and time to explore without getting all this explicit direct instruction. Their brains just aren’t wired for that yet,” said Zivkovich. As they attempted to find footing in this new terrain, the co-founders explored what they believed about children and education. Thenor and Zivkovich found much inspiration in the Finnish style of teaching. Digging into this method, they found that in Finland, compulsory education is started later than in the American school system, typically around age seven. “We’ve been doing this long enough that we’ve found that those kids that we took a gentle approach with early on – they’re growing into just fine learners and wellrounded kids who are now in our older grades,” said Zivkovich. As they enter year eight as an organization, WonderHere has alumni who are currently in high school – and they’re successful. These students have had roughly 75% less paper-and-pencil, sitting-in-a-desk instruction than their counterparts. “They’ve done a lot more digging in the dirt, drawing, creating, playing in the garden than most kids. But academically, they look the same on paper,” said Thenor. “There’s not as much merit as we’re led to believe that the number of hours we spend at a desk doing paperwork will equal the amount they’ve learned and retained. […] When they are developmentally ready, they will get the knowledge that they need.” MORE MICROSCHOOLS COMING SOON It’s always been in the co-owners’ hearts to share what they’ve learned the past eight years. Thenor likes to refer to their location as a research center for their ideas. Skilled and intuitive teachers are given the autonomy to try different learning methods, an opportunity not afforded to many public school educators. “They have been a really important sounding board as we’ve grown and developed,” Thenor said of their WonderHere instructors. Over their tenure, the best friends feel that they’ve tested and honed in on a successful education style. “We’re getting to the point now that we want to create other microschools like WonderHere in other locations and empower other people to do the things we do,” said Thenor. WonderHere recently received a grant from VELA, which, according to their website, “is the nation’s leading community of entrepreneurs providing alternatives to conventional schooling.” Zivkovich said, “It really is the perfect time. There are so many people realizing that education can be done differently, and they feel the same urging that we felt to do our part to make the educational world a better place.” WonderHere 5120 Colbert Rd, Lakeland (863) 698-7782 FB: WonderHere IG @wonderhere

  • Fancy Farms Market

    “I think between December and January, that’s when the berries taste the best,” according to Fancy Farms Market co-owner Kristi Grooms-Barnes. Hailing from the Winter Strawberry Capital of the nation, growing from Thanksgiving through Easter, Fancy Farms is approaching the height of its season – Valentine’s Day. What’s better than gifting your Valentine fresh chocolate covered strawberries? Each season, thousands of people travel to their acres and acres of green dotted with bright red Sweet Sensations, Medallions, Brilliance, and White Pineberries for a taste of Fancy Farms’ fresh, homemade strawberry treats. It’s the 50th crop year for Fancy Farms founders Carl and Dee Dee Grooms. The pair started their strawberry farm in 1974 with just 18 acres in Plant City. “My dad farmed with his dad. It was in his blood,” said daughter Kristi Grooms-Barnes. Over the years, the family acquired more property and reached around 250 acres at their crest. Today, they operate a commercial strawberry farm and roadside market offering seasonal desserts, local produce, and fresh flowers on 135 acres across Hillsborough and Polk Counties. Joining Carl and Dee Dee are their son, Dustin Grooms, and daughter, Kristi Grooms-Barnes. Dustin went into the military for eight years before returning to the family farm. “I like the challenge of it. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. I like the challenge of coming out here every day being an entrepreneur, doing the best I can,” Dustin Grooms said. After graduating from college, Kristi went into marketing and advertising. She worked in Tampa for 18 years for a company specializing in real estate marketing. About four years ago, she decided to come back to what she knew – strawberries. “I wanted to come back to my family roots and help my brother and continue the legacy that my parents have built here,” she said. “I missed being here. I missed being around my family.” Aunts and uncles help at the farm and market. “It really is a farming family,” Grooms-Barnes said. “My dad has a motto, ‘Since 1974 and still learning.’” About ten years ago, the Grooms looked to retire and sold off property, ready to close shop. Dustin was the first one to raise his hand that he wanted to continue their legacy. Four years ago, “He and I came up with this idea to start this little roadside market,” said Grooms-Barnes. The idea behind the market was another avenue to sell their strawberries beyond commercially at grocery store chains. Fancy Farms has been a grower partner with the century-old Wish Farms for over 35 years. “My grandfather brought vegetables to the Wishnatzki’s when they used to do produce in the early days when they came to Florida. […] It’s a family affair. We’re all connected here in the agricultural industry,” said Grooms-Barnes. “My mom has always baked and cooked everything strawberry. We have all these family recipes that we constantly share with our friends and family,” she added. The decision to launch Fancy Farms Market was made in 2019, though they didn’t open the doors until December 2020. “It was unbelievably successful,” Grooms-Barnes said. “It was almost a movement. People want to know where their food comes from. They want to come out to the farms; they want to see where it’s grown.” Alongside their farm-fresh strawberries, the market offers strawberry shortcakes, cobbler, cookies, bread, and hand-spun milkshakes. “All the recipes are homemade right here at the market,” Grooms-Barnes said. They started baking out of a modest 14x24 foot shed they’d converted into a commercial kitchen. After the first year, they expanded their bakery space at the market. “My mom and my aunt have trained all the ladies that work for me on the recipes. They know all of our family recipes backward and forwards, just like my momma and my family do,” she said. “Everything is homemade here, and everything is fresh. The strawberries we use in our milkshakes are picked in the morning and processed to go directly into our milkshakes when we hand blend them — same thing with our strawberry shortcake. Nothing is frozen. It’s all fresh that day. It creates a different taste in your desserts because you get that tartness with the strawberry followed by that burst of sweetness.” Last year, they outgrew their bakery space again and built a third kitchen with the intention of serving lunch. “God has evolved this into something I had no idea. It’s been remarkable, and I’m very blessed,” said Grooms-Barnes. They launched a three-item lunch menu last month with a chicken salad croissant sandwich made with homemade sweet pickle relish, a strawberry BBQ pork sandwich, and Dee Dee’s famous strawberry walnut salad served on a bed of romaine lettuce dressed in homemade strawberry vinaigrette. “In the army, they taught to crawl, walk, run. That’s kind of what we’re doing with this, but the crawl part started as a trot. Each year, we plan on building and building. Who knows where it will evolve, but we definitely want to get into the education side of it to educate our youth on where food comes from and how it’s grown,” said Dustin Grooms. “My parents have been huge advocates over the years for educating youth,” Grooms-Barnes said. Fancy Farms is a regular supporter of the Hillsborough County 4H program. They’ve hosted an annual U-pick fundraiser for the group for several decades. This year, the Hillsborough County 4H Annual U-pick is scheduled for February 17 at their Plant City farm. It’s their biggest fundraiser of the year, with all proceeds going to the 4H program. Eventually the Grooms hope to start a more structured educational program inviting school children to learn how food gets onto their plate from planting a cover crop during the summer which puts nutrients back into the soil to irrigation and laying the plastic. According to Grooms-Barnes, “There’s a lot that goes into farming. I’d love to start a program to bring kids in and teach them that.” They only get off during the harvesting season when it’s raining. “That doesn’t mean that the truck didn’t break down, that you need to work on the tractor, that you’re going to be doing paperwork. You’re going to be working on something. Every day, something needs to be done on the farm. It never stops, it never sleeps, it doesn’t know if you are sick, or if it’s a vacation or a holiday,” Dustin said. “Strawberries are a very perishable crop. It’s all done by hand. It is a very labor-intensive crop.” Each of their three million strawberry bushes are hand-planted, and it takes 21 days for the berries to grow. They pick from the same bush every two to three days. The hard work isn’t done alone, however. Most farmers in Plant City are part of The Florida Strawberry Grower’s Association. Carl Grooms was one of five men to start the organization in the 80s. Its function is to help growers battle diseases, create new varieties, learn agricultural laws, and everything in between. According to FSGA, “Like all farmers, Florida strawberry growers struggle with the same issues and risks associated with food safety, economic stability and government regulations. That’s why FSGA provides access to research, resources and support that help growers proactively make their farms more efficient and competitive in the marketplace.” The organization also works in conjunction with the University of Florida to develop and crossbreed strawberries to produce the firmest berries with the best flavor that can ship across the nation – all traits the consumer looks for. There are about 80 members, with approximately 15,000 acres of strawberries grown in Hillsborough County. When strawberry season ends, the Fancy Farms Market menu changes. “We completely change the menu throughout each season to keep it fresh,” said Grooms-Barnes. Desserts change to blueberry, blackberry, and peach. While enjoying fresh blackberry cobbler, market-goers can enjoy, pick, and take photos in an endless field of sunflowers and zinnias. “It is unbelievably beautiful,” she said. Flower season is mid-May through the end of June, when they close for the summer through November. JUICY STRAWBERRY FACTS: Strawberries are in the rose family Strawberries contain more vitamin C than oranges Americans eat roughly seven pounds of strawberries per year You eat about 200 seeds with every strawberry February 27 is National Strawberry Day Photography by Amy Sexson Fancy Farms Market 5204 Drane Field Rd, Lakeland (813) 478-3486 FB: Fancy Farms Market IG @fancyfarmsmarket

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