"The work of the soil is an introduction to nature and civilization. The work of the soil is the approach to limitless scientific and historical studies. As for the harvest, it constitutes an invitation to the fundamental social mechanism of production and exchange, the economic base on which society rests."
"I like to fry these peas in butter, lots of butter," Tameka is telling me. "And they taste good right when you pick them."
It's 9:00 a.m. on a bright, humid July morning. In thick-soled wedge sandals and a striped T-shirt, her hair braided into sleek rows, this preteen looks like she's ready for a day of shopping the summer sales. Instead she's pushing peas at the Youth Farm and Market's booth in Healthy Powderhorn Farmers Market. Tameka and her crew have been up since 6:00 a.m. to harvest peas, collards, salad mix, and rhubarb in their nearby city plots.
"That's $2 for a pound," she says, scooping an emerald pile into a plastic bag, setting it on the hanging produce scale. "You should get more. They're really sweet."
This is Tameka's third summer in the Youth Farm and Market Project (YFMP), a year-round program for urban youth ages 9 to 13. From June through September, African-American, African, Hmong, Latino, and Caucasian participants grow greens, herbs, and flowers on abandoned lots for farm markets in housing complexes and urban neighborhoods in exchange for a small weekly stipend.
To call YFMP simply a kids' summer program, however, is like saying farming is just a food-production business. "Growing and marketing food to a community teaches valuable lessons in the natural sciences, mathematics, communication, and commerce," says David Brandt, who founded the project in 1995. "The youth serve an important role by providing fresh, good-quality food to low-income city residents who have few places other than high-priced convenience stores to shop. YFMP is about community involvement, pride, mentorship, empowerment."
Funded by foundation grants and gifts from individuals, the markets themselves generate some income; the youth are paid from these earnings, and any leftover income goes back into the farms. "The money recognizes their time and labor in an adult way and acknowledges these children's capabilities," says Erika Englund, a staff coordinator. "I am always amazed at how hard they work, how responsible and committed they are. The money helps them feel invested in the entire project. I trust these kids completely. They show up on time, do what they say they will do.
"But money is not why these kids love the program and come back year after year," she opines. "They really love this work and are involved in all the key decisions right from the start. They decide what to plant, how to organize their crews for planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, setting up the stands, and pricing and selling. They really like market day--talking with customers, figuring out change. They like being acknowledged and treated like adults."
In the program's first year, ten young people sold $500 worth of produce at two youth-run neighborhood markets. Six years later, in 2000, 227 youth worked with the Youth Farm in the summer and school-year programs in Minneapolis's Lyndale and Powderhorn neighborhoods and on St. Paul's west side. They sold more than $13,000 worth of produce at ten neighborhood markets and earned more than $28,500 in stipends and wages.
At the same time, YFMP has blossomed from one very stretched "part-time" director to a full-time director and five staffers. The program now operates year-round, collaborates with schools and neighborhood centers, and is under consideration by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program to be designated as its first U.S. Special Project.
Weekdays, YFMP kids plant, weed, and harvest their farms on the grounds of Minneapolis's Charles Horn Terrace public-housing high-rise and at the nearby Lyndale Community School, and on vacant lots elsewhere in the Lyndale and Powderhorn neighborhoods. On St. Paul's west side, a farm site has been developed in conjunction with Humboldt Junior/Senior High School and La Puerta Abierta, a Latino church. In Powderhorn, participants erected a community greenhouse behind the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association's offices.
The youth run two different types of markets: those that reach low-income neighborhood residents, and others designed to expose young people to thriving businesses and mentors. In Lyndale's program, the kids sell produce at Charles Horn Terrace throughout the year and at Calhoun Square during the summer. Powderhorn youth participate in the Healthy Powderhorn Farmers Market, and St. Paul youth sell year-round at Dunedin Terrace public-housing high-rise and seasonally at La Placita, an outdoor market on Concord, the west side's main street.
Some of the kids even manage their own commercial accounts, selling gourmet lettuces and greens to the likes of Lucia's Restaurant, May Day Café, and Lunds in Uptown. This year, in advance of the growing season, Lucia's owner Lucia Watson and some of the young farmers picked out a variety of lettuces and greens and have planted an entire plot for the restaurant.
At Charles Horn Terrace, the kids help senior-citizen residents manage the high-rise's produce market. Young and old alike work together to purchase additional produce from local farmers and wholesalers to augment what they grow. They decide what to buy, how to price it, and then set up to sell it. "One of the elderly residents, a Chinese woman, would buy her braising mix from one of our burlier, tougher-looking guys every week," Brandt says. "And every week, she'd hold out her purse so he could take out the money and put in the change. He'd always count it out slowly for her so she could see he was being fair." (The high-rise has also proved a rich source of YFMP volunteers, such as the retired carpenter from Liberia who helped the kids make vegetable and flower signs and flower boxes in the program's woodshop to sell in their markets.)
New to the project this year is the Our Own Lunch Program, which enlists the kids in making their own lunch. Using as much of the harvest as possible, three kids act as the kitchen crew of the day, preparing a meal from scratch for their farmer peers. Under the creative guidance of Jenny Breen, the former owner of the now-closed Good Life Café, a menu might include homemade veggie pizza on whole-wheat crust, tossed greens and cucumbers with basil-mint vinaigrette, and fresh rhubarb tart. With help from local chefs who volunteer time in the kitchen, Breen works with the kids to plan menus, cook and serve the meals, and compost waste to use on the gardens, thus completing the cycle.
"We made ravioli," says Renee, a sprightly ten-year-old sporting a purple scrunchy in her ponytail. She pushes her hands across the table as though holding a rolling pin. "I got to roll the dough really, really thin."
"We get all kinds of things," chimes in Johann. "I really like the noodles with sesame seeds and the curry we had."
Staffed by parents, neighborhood volunteers, business owners, and resource people, the activities are designed to help build self-confidence and develop life skills. The relationships foster in these kids a broader view of the world of work beyond the all-too-typical mind-numbing teenage jobs, like scooping fries at McDonald's.
To that end, after cleanup, the kids choose a scheduled activity from a list including graphic design, theater, cooking, sewing, poetry, and photography. The graphic-design group makes T-shirts, signs, and displays for the farm markets. Woodworkers build flower boxes, garden whirligigs, toys, and plant stakes. In collaboration with the Southwest Journal, the journalism group publishes a newsletter, What's Sproutin'. The sewing group makes sachets to sell at the markets, while the poets put together a chapbook. Last year, with Watson's help, one group collected recipes from local celebrities and the kids themselves for a cookbook that's now sold at the farm stands.
"I got to work with Lucia in her restaurant," Renee says, smiling broadly. "I mixed the salad and made these great sugar cookies." Barbara Davis (Ken Davis Barbecue Sauces) and chefs at D'Amico Cucina and May Day Café also invite the kids into their kitchens for hands-on experience.
To round out the program, YFMP kids attend "Farm Camp" at two locations in Wisconsin: Philadelphia Community Farm in Osceola and Wilder Forest in Somerset. They spend three days learning to milk cows, make butter and yogurt, corral sheep, load hay, harvest vegetables, set up irrigation lines, make potting soil, and weed beds. They also cook their own meals, swim in the St. Croix River, walk in the woods at twilight, and gather around a bonfire in the evening to sing and tell stories.
According to a recent study at Louisiana State University, 40 percent of the vegetables eaten by African-American teenagers are French fries and potato chips. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports the average teenager drinks about 21 ounces of caffeinated soft drinks per day. The marketing target for high-fat, high-caffeine junk food, kids make up the consumer group often referred to as "Generation Wired."
It's no secret that the numbers are even worse in low-income neighborhoods and other places where there are few viable alternatives to the processed foods of expensive convenience stores. To paraphrase an article in the New York Times last year, "Poor people eat poor food."
I've learned over and over again that the best way to get my kids to eat good food is to get them cooking. (What little boy doesn't love fire and knives?) A program that involves kids in making healthful lunches pretty much ensures that these kids will learn to cook and eat well. "There's real excitement and anticipation as the kids head out of the garden to lunch," says staff coordinator Englund, who reports hearing comments like, "I hope we have those egg rolls again," and "Weren't those enchiladas killer?"
Gardening, cooking, serving, eating, composting--all are truly basic activities. But the lessons they can teach are often obscured and drowned out by the clamor of the media and the insidious temptations of consumerism. Kids today are bombarded with a culture that teaches redemption through buying things. These gardens turn our culture upside down--through this work, the kids develop an understanding of the real, the authentic, and the lasting--the experiences money can't buy.
Youth Farm and Market Project produce is available on Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in neighborhood farmers' markets held outside Calhoun Square in Minneapolis; at El Burrito Mercado, 175 Concord St., in St. Paul; and at the corner of Chicago Avenue South and East 31st Street in Minneapolis.
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