Growing Food, Nurturing Leaders
By Adam Smiley Poswolsky
I recently had the inspiring opportunity to speak with Jeanne Firth, program manager for Grow Dat Youth Farm, about her passion for food justice and youth empowerment. Grow Dat Youth Farm creates a healthy and supportive work environment for high school-aged youth from New Orleans who face limited job opportunities. With a focus on developing a sense of responsibility, community, environmental stewardship, and service among participants, the farm enhances leadership and teamwork abilities through the collaborative work of growing food.
Grow Dat’s recent campaign on StartSomeGood raised nearly $6,000, and over the course of their 20-week job skills training program in 2012, young people grew over 7,250 pounds of food on the Grow Dat Farm, donating 2,750 pounds of this harvest to address hunger and food insecurity in New Orleans, and raising $13,500 from produce sales at local restaurants and farmer’s markets.
Jeanne, what is your personal story? How did you get involved in food issues? Why are you passionate about food justice and youth empowerment?
I come from several generations of immigrant farmers on the Kansas prairie, and the vast majority of my family still farms. I grew up in Kansas City, but I never felt far from the land. In high school, I got involved in the global anti-hunger movement, working with international hunger relief and anti-poverty groups. I believe food is about more than calories, it’s about culture. Food is a tool for talking about livelihoods, and human rights. I did my graduate academic study at the London School of Economics in food and human rights; using food as a way to understand injustice, looking at who has access to food, and why only a small number of people have access to healthy food both in the U.S. and internationally.
As a youth, I benefited from many youth empowerment organizations that encouraged my voice in social justice and social change, which I why I love working at Grow Dat. I first started working with young people at Mission Pie, an amazing bakery/cafe in San Francisco that provides job skills training to youth.
How does Grow Dat Youth Farm work?
We hire young people in New Orleans to grow food for their community. These young people are hired and paid to participate in our educational program as well as grow chemical-free food on the farm. There is a very high teenage unemployment rate in New Orleans, especially among African-Americans, and teenagers that do have jobs often work in the fast food industry. At Grow Dat, we believe that act of growing healthy food, of growing healthy food for your community, is both a meaningful and transformational experience. Sixty percent of the food we grow is sold, and the other 40% is donated to those in the local community who cannot afford it (families, partners, food banks, free restaurants). We find that that the work our young people do has a larger social impact than many of the jobs that would be normally available to the average teenager.
Explain how your program model provides job training and leadership skills for youth, in addition to agricultural skills.
We believe agriculture is an incredible tool to develop young leaders. Chances are young people from an urban environment probably have not been exposed to farming, and even though most will not become farmers, agriculture is an excellent teacher of teamwork, persistence, attention to detail, and long-term planning. We nurture a diverse group of young leaders, bringing together youth from different backgrounds, different schools, different parts of the city, across race and class lines, in what becomes a transformational learning experience. We also teach hard job skills through weighing produce, learning to price food, and developing marketing and customer service skills in selling our product to the public and representing the organization at markets.
What other urban farm projects and programs did you learn from and try to emulate in building Grow Dat? What resources and best practices are available for others creating social change through youth leadership and urban agriculture programs?
There is such a high need for this type of work in New Orleans and other cities throughout the country, and it’s great to see that a lot of organizations are doing incredible work in this area. Grow Dat is modeled after in Boston, which has been engaging young people in sustainable agriculture for over twenty years, as well as in Austin. The Food Project provides excellent on their website, and , thanks to a grant from the New Orleans Food and Farm Network.
How have you utilized partnerships with New Orleans-area institutions, to further the impact of your organization?
Grow Dat’s success is tied to a robust network of engaged partners. Tulane City Center which is housed within the Tulane School of Architecture, has been essential from day one. Both Grow Dat co-directors, Johanna Gilligan and Leo Gorman, are Tulane graduates, and Tulane City Center is providing technical support to create our campus on the farm, which will include seven retro-fitted shipping containers that are going to house our outdoor classroom, administrative offices, youth locker rooms, a teaching kitchen, bathrooms, and refrigerated food storage. All of their work is done with an attention to a highly energy-efficient and sustainable design.
What is the greatest challenge for Grow Dat in 2012?
Our biggest challenge revolves around sustainable growth. How do we serve more young people, and grow more food, while still maintaining quality of excellence for the young people we serve? That is what we are focusing on right now.
Adam Smiley Poswolsky
I am a writer, editor, and social change inspirer. I am a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow, and I care about supporting social entrepreneurs and encouraging people to live out their full potential in life. For the last two years, I worked at the U.S. Peace Corps, writing speeches and working on special projects including President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. Prior, I received my BA in film studies from Wesleyan University and worked as a film producer and location scout. I live in San Francisco, but I travel often, mostly by dancing and smiling. Check out my blog and follow me on Twitter
Images courtesy of Grow Dat Youth Farm.
To learn more about Grow Dat Youth Farm and how to get involved, check out their , and this infographic about their work.
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