Roots and Wisdom Summer Youth Program

Final Report for CNE06-017

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2006: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $46,991.00
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Leslie Wiedmann-Herd
Roots and Wisdom
Expand All

Project Information


The three main goals of the Roots and Wisdom Summer Youth Program are providing fresh, organic, produce for people in need; engaging a diverse group of Schenectady County youth in working, learning, and leading together; and having participants learn first hand about sustainable agriculture, local food systems, and good nutrition.

Roots and Wisdom brings together youth from different racial, ethnic, sociocultural, and economic backgrounds to work towards supporting their community through sustainable agriculture and service. City and suburban youth will get to know each other in the course of summer farming activities, community service, and structured workshops examining diversity, leadership, nutrition, food systems, and other relevant topics.

The major focus of the program is groups of youth working with committed adults, to grow organic produce for donation to local food shelters and other hunger programs, and for sale at local farmers markets. We explore what can be done to alleviate hunger while developing high quality, sustainable food systems.

Project Objectives:

The goal of Roots and Wisdom was to select 20 diverse youth from throughout the Schenectady County region and hire them for a five and one half week summer youth employment program. Youth hired would participate in all aspects of working on the Roots and Wisdom land including: planting- both in the fields and in seed flats, watering, weeding, fertilizing, compost making, bed preparation, harvest and marketing. Food grown would be distributed to local food banks and other food providers, and sold at local farmer’s markets.

In order to create a sense of community the youth participated in daily team building activities lead by two college crew leaders, and afternoon workshops lead by staff and community leaders. The weeks were organized around a central theme or themes and activities and workshops related to the central theme/s of the week. Topics included were: building community, sustainable agriculture, local food systems, nutrition, hunger, leadership, diversity, service, and promise.

Once a week everyone volunteered at either the Schenectady Inner City Ministry (SICM) food pantry, the Salvation Army lunch program, or the SICM Summer Lunch program for children.

We also planned for and participated in a national “Eat-In Act Out” week to promote eating locally grown foods, shopping at farmer’s markets, and either cooking at home or eating at locally owned restaurants in your community. The youth coined the phrase: BE VOCAL EAT LOCAL, to educate about our work.

By actively engaging youth and adults in a “real world”, hands-on, skill-based program tangible results were achieved: providing food for fellow residents in need, promoting youth leadership opportunities, encouraging healthier lifestyles through good nutrition, and providing rewarding volunteer experiences for people of all ages. Reconnecting with our agricultural roots enabled Roots and Wisdom to bring a sense of place, hope, and purpose to Schenectady County.


Materials and methods:

January 2006
County-wide recruitment began for the Summer Youth Program. Area middle schools and high schools were actively targeted along with Boys and Girls Clubs, church and other youth organizations, homeschoolers etc. Recruitment announcements appeared on our website, in two local newspapers, and were read on a local tv station.

March 2006

Youth participants were interviewed and selected for 2006 Summer Youth Program. 20 participants were selected and 18 started the summer youth program. Participants selected were 14-17 years old and reflected the diversity of Schenectady County. The youth worked a 20-30 hour work week (depending on their age), and were paid a stipend from the Schenectady County Youth Employment Program.

Roots and Wisdom leased an acre of land from the city of Schenectady in Central Park in the heart of the city, and had a smaller plot at Cornell Cooperative Extension's Horticulture Education Center, also in Central Park. These two sites offered participants the opportunity to work in an intimate urban garden setting, and were highly accessible to all participants. A large variety of crops were grown and donated to local food pantries and food providers, and sold at local farmer’s markets. Approximately 5000 pounds of vegetables were grown of which twenty percent were donated.

We had planned to have a rural site for growing on but the site preparation was not completed, so we focused our efforts on our urban growing sites. We have since decided that we would like to secure more urban land due to its accessibility to our non-driving youth participants.

A summer program manager assisted in planning, and managing the day-to-day operations of the summer youth program. She was familiar with non-formal education principles and practices, comfortable working with a diverse group of teens, and had a demonstrated commitment to youth development and service. A garden manager was employed to plan and manage the day-to-day operations of the farming enterprise. She was skilled in organic agriculture and committed to the mission of Roots and Wisdom. Our outreach staff person facilitated our volunteer crews and was very active in community outreach and fundraising. Two college age crew leaders from Schenectady County were hired to manage the youth crews. They served as immediate supervisors of the program participants and oversaw the day-to-day activities. One of the college crew leaders continued with Roots and Wisdom in order to complete her senior project. She is presently working with Roots and Wisdom, and Union College staff to design a year-round curriculum for youth. We also had an apprentice from SUNY- Cobleskill who worked with us to fulfill her 600 hour requirement for her bachelors degree in plant and soil science.

Volunteers were an integral part of the Roots and Wisdom program. A diverse volunteer base was established comprised of individuals of all ages; school, community, and work-based groups: and others interested in serving. One hundred and fifteen individuals donated 547 community volunteer hours.

Key milestones include the recruitment of 20 youth for participation in the summer youth program; planning and planting of the vegetable gardens; and harvest and distribution of the produce to food pantries, food shelters, and for sale at farmer’s markets. Also included was the spring and fall distribution of our newsletter DIG Ideas. Two community events took place- potato planting (and replanting), in the spring, and then a fall harvest celebration and cover-cropping.

Research results and discussion:

The Summer Youth Program exceeded our expectations on the impact that it would have. All of the youth that participated in the program were changed as a result of their involvement. Areas of impact for the youth included: learning to work as a team; learning about community service; learning about and gaining an appreciation for agriculture; learning how to make compost: and realizing that they could make a difference in the world.

Our presence at the farmer's market brought more people as a result of our outreach efforts and publicity. Roots and Wisdom was the only organic producer at the market and was able to educate consumers on our growing practices.

During BE VOCAL EAT LOCAL week we reached out to hundreds of community members at the city council meeting; on a local TV station interview; through the creation and distribution of a BE VOCAL EAT LOCAL flyer; in newspaper articles; and with a signed (by all participants), letter to the editor of our local newspaper. Roots and Wisdom youth and staff prepared and hosted a community luncheon in which over 75 community members attended.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Produced two newsletters: DIG Ideas- one in the spring of 2006, and one in the fall 0f 2006.
Articles in both the Times Union and The Daily Gazette
Two interviews with youth and staff on Schenectady Today- a local cable access tv show.
Community Luncheon- prepared and served by Roots and Wisdom summer youth and attended by 75 community members.

Feedback from all of our community outreach has been very positive and continues to grow.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Of the 18 youth hired to participate in the summer youth program 17 completed the program. Highlights of the summer program are bulleted below:

• 2 youth and one staff member appear on Schenectady Today, a local cable access tv show to promote Roots and Wisdom.
• Youth participants, crew leaders and staff perform weekly community service at six sites in Schenectady, including one food pantry, one adult lunch program, and 4 summer lunch programs for children at which over the course of the season 15,000 lunches were served.
• Youth participants and staff sell Roots and Wisdom produce at the St. Luke's Farmers market in Schenectady on Tuesdays. 32% of Roots and Wisdom sales are made to community members on assistance.
• Weekly donations to area food pantries and community organizations are made.
• Over 5000 pounds of produce grown and distributed. Over twenty percent of produce is donated.
• Summer Youth Program participants take part in a national campaign called EAT-IN ACT-OUT and spend a week raising awareness about the importance and benefits of eating locally grown food. Youth name the Roots and Wisdom campaign- BE VOCAL EAT LOCAL. Youth dress up as carrots at the farmer's market to try and lure customers to the market. Youth also walked the neighborhood surrounding the market passing out carrots to eat and promoting the farmer's market and supporting local agriculture.
• Schenectady City council unaminously declares BE VOCAL EAT LOCAL week; established to promote the benefits of eating locally grown food by signing a proclamation in front of a packed house of community members. Youth are once again dressed as carrots and speak about the benefits of eating locally grown produce. Sungold tomatoes are given out to over 100 people in attendance.
• 2 youth and one staff member appear on a local television program to promote Roots and Wisdom and BE VOCAL EAT LOCAL week. A third youth demonstrated salad preparation using Roots and Wisdom produce.
• A letter to the editor of The Daily Gazette entitled "Eating locally grown is better," was written by Roots and Wisdom youth, signed by all program participants and published in The Daily Gazette.
• Community luncheon held to recognize and thank members of the community for their support. Produce supplied by Roots and Wisdom and prepared by the youth and volunteers. Over 75 people attend.
• Roots and Wisdom participate in Schenectady' s Promise "Photo- Vision" in which youth are given cameras and asked to photograph concerns and strengths of the community. Photos are then displayed at the Schenectady Public Library and the community is invited to a reception in October.

After the Summer youth program ends volunteers continue to work at the Roots and Wisdom garden and help with the farmer's market. Over 500 hours of volunteer labor is recorded for our first season.

DIG Ideas- our seasonal newsletter is produced and distributed, in the spring and fall of 2006. Our mailing grows from 309 in the fall of 2005, to 504 in the fall of 2006.

Fundraising continues throughout the summer and additional funding is secured to purchase a garden shed; improve irrigation; and purchase materials and equipment for building high tunnels for the 2007 season.

The Schenectady Youth Employment Program is so impressed with our work that they offer us funding for 30 youth next summer!!!

Roots and Wisdom staff and alumni volunteer with Concerned for the Hungry, to prepare food baskets for Thanksgiving distribution. One of the participating youth comments that we need to get together at least four times a year.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

"The (Roots and Wisdom) Fehr Avenue garden is one of the best improvements to the neighborhood since I've lived here" Peter Teresco, Long time Schenectady Resident

The visibility of our urban garden was a major factor in community acceptance and appreciation of our work. Community members were able to see youth and adults working together to create not only a beautiful garden but tons of high quality produce. Our enthusiasm at the farmer's market encouraged people to keep on coming back to the market and to bring their friends and colleagues.

17 youth and their families learned about sustainable agriculture and the importance of supporting our local farmers.

All of the youth learned about and participated in community service and leadership, recognizing that one person truly can make a difference.

Through outreach efforts such as the city council meeting, farmers markets, local tv station interviews, local newspaper articles, etc. the Roots and Wisdom program and mission is promoted and supported. Community feedback is highly supportive, and encouraging. Based on feedback we envision expanding not only our garden space with the development of new urban gardens, but our education programs as well so as to have an even greater impact on the community.

Future Recommendations

• We are in the process of looking for land to expand our growing capabilities as the demand is there and we have the opportunity to hire 30 youth next summer.
• One of our summer crew leaders is working on developing a year round curriculum for Roots and Wisdom as her senior project for college.
• Staff is working with Cornell Cooperative Extension Nutritionist to promote Farm to School initiatives.
• Staff is looking to promote and develop marketing opportunities for local farmers.
• Staff is researching hoop house production so as to lengthen harvest season.
• Staff is working with a shelter for at risk youth to develop a value added product.
• Staff continues to research long term funding opportunities.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.