West Orange Takes Steps to Become Healthier

by Debra Wood

Dedicated to enhancing health and wellness in west Orange County, West Orange Healthcare District is making some significant investments by funding the development of a farm at Tucker Ranch and the new Shepherd’s Hope headquarters and clinic, both in Winter Garden.

“This goal of becoming the healthiest community in the nation is a long-term commitment,” said Tracy Swanson, WOHD’s executive director. “We hope this inspires other parts of west Orange and other communities to look for ways to help their residents become healthy and stay healthy.”

The health district was created in 1949 by the Florida Legislature. In 2012, the district sold its facilities, including Health Central, to Orlando Health. The district’s trustees are focused on prevention and changing people’s daily habits.

Tucker Ranch

After the city removes invasive ferns that have taken over the ground at Tucker Ranch, an expansive tree canopy appears.

Winter Garden City Manager Mike Bollhoefer is not aware of any other community in Florida developing a self-sustaining farm.

The entire west Orange community’s roots include agriculture; however, most of the farms and groves that used to be there have closed and/or been removed as residential and commercial development have taken hold. Charles Tucker’s family grew citrus and raised cattle on the land. Winter Garden officials approached the health care district about supporting its plans for a farm at the Tucker Ranch.

“We thought it would be a great idea, partnering [with the health care district],” Bollhoefer said. “We made a presentation, and they loved the idea.”

WOHD provided a $1.7 million grant to create a 12-acre sustainable working and teaching farm at Tucker Ranch. The farm is expected to produce more than a million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables annually. The produce will be sold at farmers markets, and any excess will be offered to hospitals and schools. School children and others also will be able to visit the farm at scheduled times to learn about healthy eating.

The city will contract with a company to run the farm, which will use permaculture design principles, eliminating waste and using natural pest control. The fruits and vegetables will be produced in greenhouses, in the ground and hydroponically.

“The farm will become its own self-sustaining infrastructure,” Bollhoefer said.

Winter Garden acquired Tucker Ranch in 2011 for $2.1 million. It has since added roads, drainage and other infrastructure and removed invasive plants. The Florida Communities Trust provided an $840,252 state grant to preserve and develop the site for a park. Those plans remain in place. When it opens, the 208-acre Tucker Ranch will feature the farm and recreational areas, with camping, canoeing and walking nature trails.

The ranch is located off Avalon Road and extends to the north shore of Johns Lake, including the grounds of the original West Orange Country Club, which closed in the 1920s due to drainage and flooding concerns. The city will preserve the historic site and archway, but the buildings have long been gone.

The project also will include the Institute of Health and Nutrition at Tucker Ranch, created in partnership with the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. Clinicians, dieticians and chefs will teach cooking and nutritional classes at the facility.

“It will help people become smarter about how food [can be] better than medicine,” Swanson said.

The city is also constructing a building and pavilion that can be used for classes and a teaching kitchen will be added onto the original Tucker home, which will remain on-site.

Bollhoefer expects the park and farm to open by 2018.

Shepherd’s Hope

Winter Garden is adding a new farmers market and community gardens on Ninth Street, on the east side of town, which is considered a food desert.

“Residents also often cannot afford healthy foods,” Bolhoefer said.

A new Shepherd’s Hope clinic, with 10 exam rooms and offices, will be located adjacent to the farmers market. Shepherd’s Hope provides free health care to low-income individuals who don’t have insurance and are ineligible for government-assisted health care programs.

“It will provide a needed service in that area,” Bollhoefer said.

The new location is near Shepherd’s Hope’s first clinic, which opened in 1997 at Westside Vocational-Technical Center.

“For us, it’s like coming home,” said Marni Stahlman, president and CEO of Shepherd’s Hope. “For the first time, Shepherd’s Hope’s administrative functions and a clinic will be at the same location. It’s also the first time we will own something of our own.”

Stahlman anticipates breaking ground in September. The city is leasing the nonprofit land for $10 per year for the next 30 years.

The West Orange Healthcare District has provided a $1 million match grant toward the capital construction of Shepherd’s Hope’s new Winter Garden Health and Administration Center. The West Orange Health Alliance has granted the first $500,000 toward that match, and St. Lukes United Methodist Church has granted an additional $100,000. In total, $1.1 million has already been secured toward the total project goal of $3 million.

“Physicians will be writing prescriptions for food as well as medicine,” Swanson said. “It will be a unique model for Shepherd’s Hope.”

Additionally, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, whose lead pastor at the time, William Barnes, founded Shepherd’s Hope, will operate a community food pantry and kitchen at the Shepherd’s Hope building. The pantry and kitchen will be available for education about preparing foods.

All care at Shepherd’s Hope is provided by volunteer physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurses. Lay volunteers carry out support functions, such as checking in patients and verifying their eligibility.

“We can build a beautiful facility and sit on a lovely piece of property in an ideal location, but in order for this to work, we need volunteers,” Stahlman said. “It’s not too early. You can get practice in another location, such as Ocoee. When the new clinic opens, you will be ready to go.” ♥

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