CBS 4 Miami: Formerly Homeless Enjoy the Fruits of Their Labor

By Michelle Gillen

MIAMI (CBS4) – Tough economic times have left many families without homes and jobs but a sweet recipe for turning lives around is being served up in one of the best restaurants in town. At its heart, an organic farm with a first of its kind harvest in America.

As sun kissed rays dance amid the vines and the summer heat bakes the brow of farmers, the air is sweet with the scent of blossoms, basil and hope on a Homestead farm that’s changing lives. Here to purchase and pick fruits and vegetables this day, one of the world’s most celebrated chiefs Norman Van Aken.

“This is one of the best chapters in Miami’s history of food. And imagine, you can feed your family, a child a neighbor,” said Van Aken.

Throughout the week Van Aken travels to this first of its kind organic farm project in the U.S. Everyone who does the planting, harvesting, picking and the canning are formerly homeless.The fruits of their labor will be served up in Van Aken’s castle in the sky restaurant Tuyo and there’s more to it than that.

The farm is a brainchild born out of a marriage between the Miami Dade Homeless Trust, the Verde Gardens housing program, Carrfour Supportive Housing, the Miami Dade College Culinary Institute and Chef Van Aken. The goal is to bring local, fresh organic food to the restaurant table while changing lives.

“And the beautiful thing is that there are people who have transformed their lives and come to live at Verde Gardens with this extraordinary trust that’s going on and they learn to farm and rise up from their formerly homeless state,” said Van Aken.

“When you plant, when you harvest, you see hope for yourself,” said Mario Yanez, founder and director of Earth Learning.

“I guess I dreamed it a long time ago. I saw it happening in France and saw that a whole movement goes on there and then came to California and we have been doing it in Florida but we’ve never been doing it with a formerly homeless group,” said Van Aken.

Emerging from deep in the farm, Van Aken said the visit was exhilarating. “It’s because it’s a tonic for the soul,” said Van Aken.

On the day of his visit, Van Aken sought the ingredients he would need for a most special dinner; to the farmers and their family. “I better do it right because they grew this with their own hands and I feel a special sense of, this is the connection,” said Van Aken.

For these guests, this night of appreciation, is most unique. Ron Book, president of the Miami Dade Homeless Trust attended to thank the farmers, their families and the man described as a culinary crusader, Norman Van Aken.

“It’s really about toasting you. You are a leader in our community and you make a difference in our community,” said Book.

Glasses were raised to salute the hard work of the guests who, with the help of the Trust and the housing project Carffour, have left a life on the street, of days without a permanent roof over their heads.

“I feel like Cinderella. I just want to say thank you Mr. Book, Carrfour and the family and friends who took that chance with us and created this residence with us. We love you, we bless you. It’s amazing! It’s just amazing. Thank you!,” enthused Alma Santos.

Daniel Lopez, 20, was amazed by the special dinner at Van Aken’s restaurant.

“This is a long way from being on the farm together with all those mosquitoes. How does it feel being here,” asked CBS4’s Michelle Gillen.

“We feel very special coming here today,” said Lopez. “It’s all kind of overwhelming. Sometimes, I get a loss for words.”

“I never thought working on a farm would mean that I could end up in a beautiful restaurant like this. This is all wonderful,” shared Glorida Otana who works at the Verde Gardens Homestead Harvest Market.

Because of the harvest, formerly homeless mothers fathers and children have homes and jobs and a future, feeding so many including many who would go without.
“My dream is to have farms like this pop up all over South Florida so that no one goes without food,” shared a hopeful Mario Yanez.