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Cultivating Youth As Agents of Change Through Urban Agriculture

Courtesy Urban Roots

Youth cooking with Urban Roots, courtesy Urban Roots

Page and Flowers at Market on the Bluff, courtesy Market on the Bluff

West Broadway Farmers Market

Come January and February, winter’s doldrums are lessened—at least for Twin Cities’ urban gardeners and farmers—by the arrival of seed catalogs. Poring through pages with images of and information on a cornucopia of vegetables, flowering plants and even gardening tools can quicken excitement for spring. The youth at Urban Roots on St. Paul’s East Side are no exception. “This week the kids started planning the gardens,” says Rebecca Mino, manager of Urban Roots’ Cooking & Wellness Program, “and are excited about another year of planting, harvesting and selling what they grow.”
Urban Roots has been gardening with East Side high-school students since 1996, hiring them as interns for an array of positions. The youngest are 14, and they can work until the summer after high-school graduation. In the Market Garden Program, they work in seven vegetable gardens, run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, and operate a farmers market stand.
They sell produce to local restaurants and salads at the "Roots for the Home Team" stand at Target Field during ball games. They also teach cooking and nutrition classes to other youth and families through Urban Roots’ Cooking & Wellness Program. The goal of these programs is to cultivate good health on the East Side by growing fresh food, leadership skills and economic independence through urban farming and other networking and educational opportunities—seeding such community development initiatives by focusing on youth.
"Before I came to Urban Roots, I ate junk food. I hadn't even heard of kale or chard, and I hadn't ever tasted a radish," says one former intern, who remains an avid gardener. She’s also majoring in English literature and communications in college, as the Urban Roots’ experience cultivated her confidence with writing, public speaking and interacting with reporters.
“My family cooks traditional Hmong dishes, but now I pass along to them what I learned,” she adds. “It's fun to cook for them and introduce new vegetables and whole grains. I tell my friends that this isn't about eating just salads. There are so many different kinds of healthy foods and delicious ways to prepare them.”
The greater community benefits from Urban Roots’ youth programs, as well. Besides the nearly 4,000 pounds of fresh produce interns deliver each growing season (including food shelf contributions), nearly 1,500 East Side residents learn about cooking, nutrition, gardening and environmental conservation. For a neighborhood described as a “food desert”—meaning fresh produce is difficult to find, much less purchase at reasonable cost—that’s no small feat.
Gardening: wealth building and leadership opportunities
In 2010, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota and Amherst A. Wilder Foundation released a study titled “The Unequal Distribution of Health in the Twin Cities.” The study asked: “Is there a connection between socioeconomic status and health in the Twin Cities?” The answer is “Yes.” The study found that “here as elsewhere health is strongly connected to race, income, and the specific parts of the metro area in which people live.”
According to the study, areas within the Twin Cities where people experience the most ill health and shortest life expectancies are also the poorest economically. Those neighborhoods include North Minneapolis, and Phillips and Powderhorn in Minneapolis. In St. Paul, the study pointed to the Frogtown and West Seventh neighborhoods, as well as Payne-Phalen and Dayton’s Bluff on the East Side.
Urban Roots is just one of many community development organizations that is working to improve residents' quality of life by integrating urban gardening with wealth building. Frogtown Farm is another initiative. A vision of longtime Frogtown residents, the urban farm and park is currently in its development phase, but intends to become “a hub for a healthy food system that fills gaps in food production, storage, manufacturing, and distribution,” according to the website.
Then there’s the East Side Healthy Foods Initiative, which will help Market on the Bluff in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood—which last year transitioned into becoming vendor-owned and –operated—hit the road this summer as a traveling market.
Urban farmer Timothy Page, who co-owns Holistic Health Farms, and Page and Flowers in St. Paul, is the former manager of Market on the Bluff. Through his companies, Page and his partner Cherry Flowers provide local food systems expertise, edible landscape planning, garden program coordination and implementation, and education to other community organizations. They also grow and market produce.
Last year, Page decided to share his insights on budgeting, sales and marketing, and customer relations with other Market on the Bluff vendors, in order to facilitate the vendors’ collaborative efforts to run the market themselves. As a result, Page says, Market on the Bluff has become not only a wealth building and leadership opportunity for the vendors. The market has also become a community-gathering place.
“Parents set up play dates for their kids at the market,” Page says. “People share recipes. The vendors have stopped competing with each other. Instead, they’re sharing insights on how to be more successful at marketing and selling their produce and products.”
Page and Flowers have also shared their expertise with the youth at Boys Totem Town, a residential program for adolescent boys who have been adjudicated delinquent by the Ramsey County’s Juvenile Court. In addition to helping the boys plant a vegetable garden and market the produce, Page says, “We talk with them about the importance of eating healthy food, the value of urban farming, and transferable skills: why it’s better to sell veggies than drugs.”
“Through gardening, we teach them to lead themselves and make their own and better decisions,” Page adds.
Cultivating the next generation of food producers
In North Minneapolis, says DeVon Nolen, manager of the West Broadway Farmers Market, the Blue Cross Blue Shield/Wilder findings inspired numerous community initiatives. “What came out of the study was that we do not have enough access to fresh local food,” she says, “but if we did have access, we would consume it!”
The community launched Wholesome Ways in coordination with Blue Cross Blue Shield and NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center—a fruit and vegetable prescription program for households in which a member is diabetic. Each week, the household received a prescription they could redeem for up to $35 in produce at West Broadway Farmers Market. “This program drove more even consumers and revenue to our market vendors,” Nolen says.
Last year, 60 percent of the market’s vendors were Northside growers. Because the market is a project of the West Broadway Business Coalition, vendors and other local food entrepreneurs receive technical assistance, and information on licensing and insurance, promotion and marketing—in order to develop their self sufficiency.
Reaching out to youth was also imperative. Project Sweetie Pie, a program that encourages young people to become food producers, and the family program Appetite for Change, inspired two 16-year-old residents to participate in the Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to small businesses in their neighborhoods via BrightSide Distribution.
“People rely heavily on corner stores for food,” Nolen explains, “but it’s not always cost effective for those stores to carry fresh produce. Demand isn’t heavy enough and thus the prices are high. So these kids worked with BrightSide to bring in bulk produce, and distributed portions to each grocery store so it was economically viable without a lot of waste.”
Those kids are now part of her “secession plan,” Nolen says, “the next generation of organizers and leaders around food justice; understanding the correlation between income and mortality, increased healthy food access and health outcomes; and how food initiatives foster economic independence.”
Becoming agents of change
At Hope Community in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, a series of community listening sessions focused on challenges people experience when trying to get healthy food, and how they experience food in relationship to health, community and family. Those sessions resulted in a partnership with the Land Stewardship Project to create a variety of programs including a community garden, a youth program for growing and preparing healthy food and developing leadership, and cooking opportunities for residents to share knowledge and recipes. 
The sessions also produced a leadership team, which is plotting next steps in the neighborhood’s development from “food desert” to resource for fresh, sustainable produce.  “At Hope we work from the core belief that peoples’ connections with each other are an important underpinning of a healthy stable resilient existence,” says Betsy Sohn, an organizer and program manager. “We’re growing our capacity to do this work by partnering with other local organizations to create supportive environments in which people can feel good about eating fresh healthy food.”
One of Hope’s initiatives is the Youth Stewards Program. Participants work in the community garden, harvest and sell their produce, lead cooking demonstrations, and learn about food within the context of the greater urban environment. During a harvest gathering last fall, Sohn says, youth from the program “had so much to say, about how they loved digging in the dirt, even though at first they thought it would be icky and wormy; how they loved meeting people different from them and discovering what they had in common.”
“It’s important that we create opportunities for young people, at an early age, to be outside and thinking about what they can do to stay healthy,” she continues. “At one of our listening sessions, one of the youth said: ‘When you’re a teenager and go to a store with junk food, you just can’t stop eating it…it’s like it’s a part of you.’ So as a community we need to help each other stay healthy, and let youth and families know they don’t have to accept what’s happening in the world. They can be agents of change.”
This story is part of a series on community transformation underwritten by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Twin Cities, an organization dedicated to helping community residents transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy and sustainable communities of choice and opportunity.
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