[Editor’s note: Please see attached photos below.]
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Prior to this grant, I had not been involved with teaching youth about sustainable agriculture. However, I did have some experience teaching youth about basic environmental science in informal settings and teaching agro-ecology workshops at community forums, primarily to adults.
The main goal of the project was to engage Urbandale youth, and their families, in their immediate environments and neighborhood in order to build connections between the natural world and sustainable food and farming. The site of this engagement was to be centered around five vacant lots in the Urbandale neighborhood. The Lansing Urban Farming Project (LUFP) had identified these lots as an area to transform and expand their urban agriculture production efforts. Specifically, the goals for educating the neighborhood youth included teaching:
• skills for designing and maintaining productive urban green spaces
• skills for raising food and flowers in a sustainable manner
• how to work, question, negotiate and share with others on a continuing basis
• the connections between a healthy ecology and a healthy neighborhood and the value of diversity, flexibility, and balance
• how on-going initiatives encourage a sense of place and individual and collective empowerment
The strategy of the project involved contacting the community, mobilizing the youth, and offering educational opportunities about the nexus of urban ecology and sustainable agriculture. Project communication was initiated through grassroots outreach. This outreach served as the basis for engaging youth and corresponding cooperation with parents and families. Educational opportunities were expressed to be a mix of ecological exploration within the immediate neighborhood.
In partnership with LUFP, the project attempted to share with the neighborhood the intentions of the project and identify youth/families that would be interested in the proposed education and activities. There were two initial rounds of outreach, which consisted of flyer distribution in the immediate Urbandale neighborhood and posting of the project at the local neighborhood center, Allen Neighborhood Center. The outreach was used to introduce the project to families and neighbors and encourage follow-up inquiries about the activities. Because the project focused on youth education, it was important to be transparent with the families about the project and to try to build trust so that the youth could participate.
The outreach advertised an initial meeting to begin the design process for the vacant lots. The meeting was held at community garden facility located in a neighborhood park. The design process was again explained to the youth who attended and they participated in various activities that elicited ideas about green space, community space, and food production. Large maps were provided to small groups so that ideas could be inserted and shared with others. The follow-up meeting convened at the vacant lots to discuss how the original ideas fit in with the given parameters.
It was conceived that successive meetings would be held at regular times/days in the vacant lot to be transformed. In addition to neighborhood ecology and agriculture, the project proposed a couple of field trips – one to the neighboring university student farm project and one to the local farmers market. These experiences were offered as supplemental learning experiences to the compounding educational lessons.
The resulting efforts aimed to more fully engage the community in urban agriculture activities. It was believed that these interactions and activities would serve as medium for further community development and engagement around food and farm systems.
LUFP staff and steering committee members provided exceptional support throughout the project. In particular, Laura DeLind was instrumental in encouraging the collaboration and providing problem solving efforts as needed. Staff at Allen Street Neighborhood Center was also exceptionally cooperative and supportive in spreading the word.
The Michigan State University Student Organic Farm deserves thanks for their accommodating a field trip and providing ongoing support to LUFP. And Urbandale residents deserve special thanks for their cooperation in the effort; many parents and families provided support through their everyday observations of the garden.
Of the various aspects associated with sustainable agriculture, this project most closely aligns with social responsibility. The results highlight youth exposure to sustainable food and farm system related issues that were previously unavailable. The Urbandale neighborhood, and its vibrant youth, was provided with opportunities to learn and experience ecologically sound urban agriculture principles and models. While the long-term results of the project are opaque, it is certain that these youth were offered sustainable agriculture learning outlets in their neighborhood.
The project captured a total audience of 25 different youth exposed to food system principles. The bulk of these principles hovered around sustainable urban agriculture systems. While the number of parents and supplemental neighbors that were exposed to the project and principles is less definitive, it was observed that the garden initiatives increased neighborhood awareness of the space compared to its previous “vacant” status.
A core group of six youth persisted through the variety of activities, ranging from weekly garden walks to local farm and market field trips. Initially the weekly educational component was scheduled as a regular Saturday event. After a couple weeks, it evolved into a more flexible experiential learning forum. Because I lived in the neighborhood, and next to the LUFP garden location, youth would stop by the house for informal ecological talks. Some youth asked about nesting birds, or the seasonal wildflowers that were emerging, or how the chickens could lay an egg without a rooster around. Unquestionably, these interactions proved to be a comfortable forum for exploration.
The “formal” lessons proved beneficial as well. The design process for the lots encouraged creative thought around place making. Through the exploration of vacant lots, the ties of local place and food sources were drawn. More tangibly, the connection of seed, soil, food and life were experienced through the planting of tomatoes in Dixie cups and winter squash in garden beds. Those youth involved with the planting process also experienced the maintenance of watering and weeding, and the fruit of the harvest. The season was finalized with a harvest party in the transformed vacant lots.
Field trips provided exposure to neighboring farm and food projects. The field trip to MSU’s student organic farm yielded ten youth and two adult chaperones. The group was introduced to hoophouse systems, rotational grazing of animals, and row crop vegetable production. In most cases, this was the group’s first exposure to a working farm.
The farm field trip was followed with a field trip to the local farmer’s market. This trip captured six youth. The group was able to walk (seven blocks) to the Wednesday afternoon market, sample a variety of fresh food items and purchase a couple goods to be cooked at home. Again, this was a first experience for many of the youth.
In addition to the lessons and field trips, LUFP also offered opportunities for youth to engage in contests and outreach activities. LUFP extended the opportunity for youth to participate in a “Veggie Wagon” design contest. Three participants who were active in the SARE project pursued the design contest (providing graphic illustrations for a produce hauling cart) and were rewarded handsomely with a winning design. Post design, these youth decorated the cart with the winning illustrations.
The vegetable cart was then use to distribute produce throughout the immediate neighborhood. Youth were recruited for this activity. Customer service skills, financial responsibility, produce quality and overall neighborhood engagement were skills emphasized during these mentoring sessions.
While many SARE project activities were amended, it became clear throughout the season that youth and their families were more intimately involved with the vacant lots than before the project. This social engagement is an indicator of the impact of the sustainable agriculture initiatives of the SARE project.
The SARE project offerd a variety of learning opportunities for Urbandale residents. The youth who participated in the project became more intimately engaged with space usage and food origins. In addition, a subsequent benefit of the project was the engagement of parents and neighbors. These individuals expressed a deeper connection to the previously vacant space as well as a more concrete trust of LUFP activities and neighborhood involvement.
Living in the neighborhood, this was a particularly personal project. I found resulting efforts to strengthen community relationships, between myself and neighbors, and provide a groundwork for folks to think about food systems. With relatively dire circumstances in the neighborhood, I found that this “rethinking” provided a sense of pride and place that were previously absent. Indeed, my place in the neighborhood, amongst parents, youth, and space, were more grounded and quicker to develop than might have been the case without the project.
Although the project provided sizeable exposure to neighborhood youth, I was surprised at the highly variable attendance to lessons. After a couple weeks of inconsistent attendance, I abbreviated the meetings to be less formal timeframes. Had I not been living in the neighborhood and relatively available due to my local gardening endeavors, this may not have been effective. However, my door was made available for questions, thoughts and activities, which produced an inconsistent but regular flow of inquiries.
If I were to do it again, I would opt for more infrequent meetings, starting later in the spring. Understandably, school obligations were a priority of the neighborhood youth and Saturday morning classes did not always attract a full audience. Starting later in the spring and scheduling meetings in the afternoon might be a better approach.
I would also attach more incentives to the projects. LUFP’s garden design contest proved to be engaging for youth and I believe more activities like this would draw out participation and creativity. I think incentives would have also encouraged more regular participation at the urban agriculture lessons.
The SARE project highlighted the ability of urban agriculture to begin to build cultural connections amongst community. Stories, hardship and enthusiasm were expressed through the project and I believe these are the significant thread that weave community together and, ultimately serve as the foundation for social change. Consequently, food system evolution is deeply rooted in social change.
The SARE project was shared with the community primarily by door-to-door outreach and LUFP outreach. Fliers were handed out in the immediate vicinity to announce the project and subsequent activities. The local community center, Allen Neighborhood Center also announced the project through its weekly enews. Laura DeLind also made announcements in the Cultural Anthropology Department.