Her basil is free for the plucking

Tabitha Crosby | USFSP
A laminated invitation is attached to Margaret Eldridge’s mailbox.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – It’s a small mailbox surrounded by a bushy basil bunch.

A laminated sign reads “Food is Free,” but the homeowner isn’t growing it for herself.

She’s giving it away.

Margaret Eldridge, a resident of the proudly weird city of Gulfport, is trying to improve her community by offering free food to neighbors and strangers by growing herbs by her mailbox.

Eldridge won’t call herself a horticulturist in any sense, but she enjoys the idea of gardening.

“I’m not a particularly green thumb. In fact, I kill a lot of plants” she said.

Eldridge was inspired by a Miami Shores couple, Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll, whose property was a battleground in a six-year legal fight. Their city’s zoning code prohibited them from growing a front yard garden.

That restriction has now been eliminated.

While reading on gardening, Eldridge stumbled across the Food is Free Project.

Food is Free is a worldwide movement about growing or sharing food with others. The hope is to inspire communities to grow self-sustainable ingredients themselves.

The movement was founded in Austin, Texas, by John VanDeusen Edwards, an environmentalist whose focus was finding efficient and eco-friendly options. On his website, he says he hopes the project will spread across the country.

“Never underestimate your power to inspire and affect your community around you. Even the smallest of acts can really ripple out,” says VanDeusen

It was this positive message that prompted Eldridge to start a community Facebook page.

Eldridge does not see herself as the leader of the project in Gulfport, just the messenger.

“I’m not looking to rally and create a huge movement,” she said. “I just created the page in case anyone else wanted to join in.”

Her home sits on a busy street near 49th Street S and 25th Avenue, about a five-minute walk from the Gulfport Mini Mart at 1615 58th St.

Its gets her exited to know that people are reading the sign, plucking the basil, and looking to her neighbors for other options.

However, she wanted to remind people that not all neighbors have joined the project.

“People should look for the sign before taking anything; don’t assume,” she said.

The Food is Free website has a wide range of members willing to offer advice.

Some are experts, some are beginners, but they all are willing to help newcomers. The options to start small seem limitless.

St. Petersburg and Tampa are not associated with the Food is Free movement but they offer alternatives. The St. Petersburg Childs Park Community Library offers a seed library. That means you can “check out” free seeds to grow on your own.

The library says all you need to do is bring a library card, or sign up for one, and check out seeds as you would anything else in the library. They even offer tips and tricks on how to successfully care for each seed packet.

The seeds have been donated by local residents and farmers.

The same rules apply at the Hillsborough Community College, which recently implemented a seed library to the public.

The University of South Florida Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses do not offer seed libraries.

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