St. Paul's Urban Roots teaches teens to cook, conserve, and reconnect with nature

Urban Roots

Urban Roots

St. Paul youth are getting schooled in all things gardening, cooking, and conservation thanks to the organization Urban Roots.

Founded by architects in 1969 as a housing development organization, Urban Roots has since evolved to focus on food and wellness. With multiple sites throughout St. Paul totaling one acre of land, they teach high school interns all about growing and cooking food as well as conservation.

“Many of them start when they’re 14, so it’s like their first job, ever,” says special projects manager Summer Badawi. The tiered program means interns return year after year for more hours and leadership opportunities.

The organization offers three programs: Market Garden, Good Fresh, and Conservation. Interns are paid minimum wage for their participation. In the Market Garden program, youth run a seed-to-sale small farm business. They plan crops, plant them, and harvest, then bring the food to market, designing sales and marketing materials for their goods, which they sell through CSA shares (which already sold out for 2018) and at farmers markets.

Participants in the Cook Fresh program learn how to prepare healthy food and enjoy weekly chef-led lunches, where they’re exposed to new kinds of foods, or tweak favorite family recipes to be healthier. “Their impression of what that food was can really transform while working with us,” says Badawi. The youth not only take the kitchen skills they’ve learned back to their families—they take food back with them, too.

In the Conservation program, youth contribute to parkland restoration, garden maintenance, and native planting. Participants often ride bikes to Urban Roots’ sites, so they get exercise and plenty of outdoor time, too. “A lot of kids are dissociated with nature,” senior program director Patsy Noble says. “A lot of them find they enjoy having that connection to nature, which they wouldn’t get on their own, either because they don’t feel safe in public parks or don’t know what to do in a public park.”

The organization's CSA is so popular it already sold out for 2018.

The organization's CSA is so popular it already sold out for 2018. Urban Roots

On Tuesday, July 17, Urban Roots will celebrate its latest development: a high tunnel at its Rivoli Bluff site. The site has been operational since 2016 and was established in partnership with Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services. In addition to affordable housing and farming, the “green village” features an orchard, honeybee hives, and pollinator garden. A solar garden and bike trail are forthcoming.

The new high tunnel is courtesy of a USDA grant and provides a protected, indoor, unheated growing space. “It’s really great in Minnesota to be able to extend the time of year that we can store our crops and harvest them, to be able to produce more food,” Badawi says.

The grand opening ceremony will include ribbon-cutting by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter as well as a meet-and-greet with community partners and state and federal representatives. Visitors can “tour” the high tunnel and chat with the Urban Roots youth interns, too.

If you can’t make it to the grand opening or missed out on those colorful CSA shares, there are other ways to taste the bounty of Urban Roots’ fare and support the organization simultaneously. Swede Hollow Café and Cook, both in St. Paul, serve dishes that incorporate Urban Roots produce. At Twins home games, you can purchase a youth-designed salad at the Roots for the Home Team salad stand. And at a pizza night on July 26, you can eat freshly grilled pizza right in the backyard of Urban Roots’ offices.

Longterm, Noble says she doesn’t expect that all 60 of Urban Roots’ current participants will go on to become farmers or chefs. “We do expect that they’re going to be more aware of community stewardship, they’re going to have more connections to different kinds of career opportunities, and also just to see the value of healthy eating and healthy living.”