PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Growing Hope educated 6 youth, ages 14-18, about sustainable agriculture through a 10-week paid internship. The internship program, which Growing Hope sponsors every year since 2004, includes a variety of experiences and opportunities in the sustainable food movement for its participants. Youth interns at Growing Hope participate in nutrition education, leadership development, food justice work and sustainable agriculture. The NCR-SARE grant funding went toward the interns’ time working on our urban demonstration farm and community farmers’ market.
In the early spring, we built upon previous years’ experience and knowledge to plan how the interns might be incorporated into the overall rhythm of our organization, and where their learning opportunities might be greatest. In June, we developed hiring criteria for prospective interns that included both participation in a volunteer workday and an interview. We advertised internship positions primarily through word of mouth, particularly through our community partners. This led to many strongly-recommended youth applying for our internship positions, and we were able to hire a diverse group with many strengths for the summer.
Our interns came from a variety of backgrounds, but were all members of the Ypsilanti community and came primarily from low-income families. Three of our interns worked with Growing Hope in previous summers, and three were brand-new to both our organization and to the concepts of sustainable agriculture in general. The variety of experience and knowledge held by our youth provided many opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and leadership development during their time at Growing Hope.
During this project it was our goal to support youth as they learned a variety of sustainable agriculture practices. By doing so, we hoped to inspire behavior change in our youth, support the development of entrepreneurship skills and create economic opportunity through food and agriculture. We accomplished these goals because we provided many different opportunities for our interns to experience the workings of an urban vegetable farm and market. Our interns participated in weekly work days with our farm managers, where they gained hands-on experience planting, maintaining and harvesting vegetables. They also learned valuable pest management techniques and irrigation methods during the hot, dry summer. In doing so, the students learned how to use compost, how to start seeds and transplant crops, how to water properly and how to plan gardens for both crop rotation and season extension. Our interns planned and executed a fall plant sale, which was a first for our organization and raised much-needed funds. This sale required the interns to put their agricultural skills to work – they decided what kind of seedlings to grow, started all the seeds and maintained their growth until it was time for the sale. In addition, the interns were responsible for advertising and coordinating the plant sale.
Program participants had ample opportunity to practice their leadership skills on the farm throughout the summer – they led various volunteer groups in workdays on the farm. As leaders, they demonstrated their knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices and taught them to community members. Our interns were also involved in the production and sale of vegetables for sale at our local farmers market. They learned how to set up a market stall and display vegetables for sale, as well as how to promote and price their vegetables in order to create sales. This experience prompted our interns to start their own fresh smoothie business, located at the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market.
In addition, youth interns spent 2 hours a week working through a food justice curriculum, which helped give a broader social and economic context for the sustainable agriculture skills and principles they learned while working on the farm. The curriculum included hands-on activities, film screenings and discussions, as well as two field trips to area food businesses that support farms and suppliers who practice sustainable agriculture.
Youth education related to healthy food access and sustainable agriculture is one of Growing Hope’s core missions. We have a variety of programs that educate young people about sustainable agriculture and healthy food access from preschool to high-school. In-school and summer programs link agriculture to healthy eating for elementary-aged youth, and our after-school cooking and gardening club at the middle school level gives students practical knowledge to help inspire behavior change.
The Youth Intern Program was developed in 2004 to give leadership skills and meaningful employment to Ypsilanti’s young people. Growing Hope had found that young people in its after school and summer programs were, once reaching early teen years, difficult to retain due to pressure to search for summer or after-school employment; and frustratingly, most who stopped attending our programs never found jobs, and then lost the chance to have a continued meaningful experience with Growing Hope. We began transitioning our teens into this employment program, which gave them both continued opportunities for learning and the chance to gain valuable first job skills.
Roughly 25 percent of Ypsilanti residents are food insecure and live well below the poverty line (US Census). Between 2008 and 2010, Ypsilanti’s jobless rate rose from 6.4 percent to 9 percent unemployment (available at http://www.milmi.org/). In the adjacent neighborhood just south of the Growing Hope Center, the median income is less than $18,000. Teens, particularly, have a hard time finding those first job experiences as the market is saturated with more experienced workers. In a community that has seen population decline in recent years, it is extremely important to engage our youth in meaningful community experiences at a young age and to demonstrate the job opportunities in their backyard.
Like all Growing Hope programs, the Youth Intern Program targets participants whose families have few resources (financial and other). All Youth Interns come from low- and no-income Ypsilanti Households. In 2010, 75 percent of youth interns were eligible for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and 75 percent were African American. As stated previously, youth interns are 14 to 18 years old. Many of the Youth Intern Program participants have participated in the program for multiple years, have worked with Growing Hope staff through in-school or after school garden-based nutrition education, come from households that have participated in other Growing Hope programs or any combination thereof.
• Through our project, we hope students will gain new attitudes, knowledge and skills that relate to sustainable agriculture in a variety of complimentary ways.
• We hope that the youth gain a new appreciation for sustainable agriculture as a way towards economic development.
• We hope the youth cultivate an open attitude towards trying healthy foods and spending work time outdoors.
• Program participants will learn both basic and intermediate gardening skills, which they will use on a daily basis on our urban demonstration farm.
• We hope the youth learn what a seed needs to grow, how to transplant crops and manage weeds, and how to maximize yields using organic growing practices.
• Youth will also learn season extension methods and crop planning as they work with our farm managers to grow vegetables for market.
• Through the time spent on our farm learning these skills, we hope our program participants see sustainable agriculture as a way to connect healthy food access in the community to environmental stewardship.
• Our program will inspire healthy behaviors in the youth and the community as a result of increasing their skills and knowledge around food production.
Once we secured funding, we began to plan the internship. Growing Hope is involved in many different aspects of the sustainable agriculture movement – we run an urban demonstration farm, organize a farmers’ market, and provide nutrition education for youth and adults. In order to make our interns’ experience as powerful as possible, we held extensive planning sessions with various staff members and community partners to discuss how best to involve our interns in the organization. We created a weekly schedule for the interns that clearly outlined how much time they would spend each week working on the farm, at the market, or in our summer youth programs. This gave each staff member involved in each program area an idea of how much time they’d be spending with our interns. During these meetings we also brainstormed activities and tasks that the interns could work on in order to achieve our goals and learning objectives for them during the internship.
Once we had an idea of what roles our interns would play and what activities they’d be doing, we began to recruit and hire qualified youth. We drew upon our internship program from previous years to determine the qualifications we’d want our interns to have. Three of our interns from previous summers returned to work for us again, and in order to fill the three remaining spots, we put a call out to our community partners to recommend youth for the job. This worked out very well for us, and we were able to hire very qualified and motivated youth for the internship.
As soon as we knew who our interns would be for the summer, we began to implement the program. We began the summer with an extensive orientation session for the interns, which served several purposes. It allowed us to clearly lay out rules and expectations for the youth during the internship, as well as provided an opportunity for us to get to know them and for them to get to know each other through team-building exercises. We supplemented this orientation throughout the summer with weekly check-in meetings with the interns, where we would go over the schedule for the week, go over any problems or issues with the youth, and discuss how the program went and what we could change to make it run more smoothly.
At the end of the summer, we encouraged the interns to document their experience through a powerpoint presentation. The interns shared their presentation during a community potluck at the local public library. The youth also shared their experience working with Growing Hope at one of our fundraising events called “Chefs in the Garden”. Chefs in the Garden are small, intimate dinners on the Growing Hope Center Farm that include delicious meals prepared by local chefs and presentations about Growing Hope programs. The August 2012 Chefs in the Garden event focused on the Summer Youth Intern Program. The interns and their families were given tickets to attend as guests of honor. Each intern talked to the 50 attendees about what they learned over the summer.
• Emily Iverson, Farm Manager, Growing Hope
• Eva Nyerges, Farm Manager, Growing Hope
• Christine Easley, Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market Manager, Growing Hope
• Christina Barkel, Youth and Schools Coordinator, Growing Hope
• Wade Davis, Youth Intern Supervisor, Growing Hope
• Danielle Gartner, Garden and Youth Program Manager
• Linda Mealing, New West Willow Neighborhood Association
• Frank Rigger, Huron Valley Boys and Girls Club
• Mable Comer, Parkridge Community Center
• Corinne Sikorski, General Manager, Ypsilanti Food Co-op
• The staff at Eden Foods
Our goals included the desire to help youth learn sustainable agriculture techniques and connect these skills to economic development. We measured outcomes in a variety of ways including activity logs that captured time spent learning various agricultural concepts; Growing Hope also conducts extensive harvest tracking by which all produce harvested from the farm is weighed and its destination noted (wholesale, retail, donation); lastly, sales logs are kept to track sale from the fall plant sale. Over the course of the summer our interns spent an average of 4 hours a week working on our urban farm, where they learned basic and intermediate gardening skills, season extension techniques, and how to maximize vegetable yield through organic growing practices. The youth participated in- and led volunteers during weekly donation harvests and contributed to the donation of 392 pounds of organically-grown produce to the local food bank. In addition, youth spent an average of 4 hours a week working at our community farmers market, where they learned a variety of ways to use sustainable agriculture as a means of economic development and made connections to local farmers. Lastly, the youth interns led the seedling growing efforts for Growing Hope’s first fall plant sale. Interns grew 535 cool-season seedlings, of which 420 were sold at the plant sale.
We also hoped the program participants would inspire healthy behaviors in youth and the community, as a result of their increased knowledge and skills around food production. We conducted qualitative post surveys with the interns to gauge the impact of the experience. Our interns were able to connect their experiences working on our farm and developing new agricultural skills to their time spent on garden-based nutrition education in our other youth programs. Over the course of the summer, our interns educated 186 elementary-aged youth about healthy eating and practical gardening skills, which allowed them to make connections with community members while reinforcing their own knowledge and behavior. When asked about their impact being a peer nutrition mentor, one youth replied: “I feel like I helped them eat more fruits and vegetables by encouraging them to try something new if they seemed skeptical about it.” When asked if they consume more fruits and vegetables because of their experience with Growing Hope, one youth responded, “I always feel I eat more fruits and vegetables when I work at Growing Hope.” Another youth responded, “Growing Hope has helped to remind me to make healthy choices when I decide to eat.” Lastly, another youth responded, “Yes I eat more fruits and vegetables because of my experience with Growing Hope. Growing Hope has taught me to prepare fruit and vegetable dishes in tasty and satisfying ways.”
Growing Hope learned a great deal about the advantages and challenges of incorporating young people into its staff during the course of the project. Accommodating the schedules and abilities of 6 different teenagers while at the same time establishing a baseline of expectations from the organization proved to be quite the experience. We learned to be flexible in our communications with the interns, while still providing clear expectations and giving feedback in ways that were easier for our interns to process and respond to. In doing so, we provided an opportunity for our youth to learn valuable job skills as well as a chance to act as an involved member of their community.
We also learned how vital communication between the various Growing Hope staff members involved with the project was during the course of the summer. With our interns learning about sustainable agriculture in so many ways and in so many areas of the organization, it was critical that all of our staff members be on the same page in regards to the project goals and learning objectives.
Having the youth interns be involved in so many different parts of the organization reflects the many ways in which the different aspects of sustainable agriculture overlap and reinforce each other. Our data shows that because the interns learned how to plant and grow vegetables, they are more open to trying and including healthier food in their diets. Our interns’ exposure to food-related businesses prompted them to start their own entrepreneurial effort through which they developed crucial skills and economic opportunities.
During the planning and execution of the project, we tried as much as possible to encourage youth voice and leadership for our interns. We wanted them to feel like they had an active role in deciding what they’d be doing during the summer, and this aspect of the project was a real strength. This method led to some challenges, however – it was often difficult to inspire teenagers to be proactive on the farm during long, hot work days. In addition, we sometimes had to reign in our interns’ ideas due to scale or budget issues.
Growing Hope has shared information about the youth intern program utilizing a variety of methods. We use social media, such as Facebook, to discuss upcoming events, current events and activities, and especially great news regarding our interns. We also use word of mouth, including community presentations and gatherings to share the story and experience of our youth interns. Similarly, we intentionally place our interns in leadership situations where they have to share their knowledge with community members through tours and informal conversations. Lastly, we share our project results, via program reports, with relevant community partners. These avenues help us communicate with existing Growing Hope supporters to tell them about our project, its activities as well as the results.
• June 28, 2012: Three interns lead 32 Southeast Michigan teachers on tours of the Growing Hope Center and talk about their experiences working at Growing Hope.
• August 18, 2012: Four interns discussed what they learned over the summer to 50 attendees at a Chefs in the Garden event.
• August 24, 2012: Six interns delivered a powerpoint presentation about their summer activities at a Community Potluck of 8 attendees.
• October 6, 2012: One intern led 13 environmental justice advocates and professors on a tour of the Growing Hope Center and talked about his experience working at Growing Hope.
• September/October 2012: Debriefing meetings with community partners and circulating program reports.
• We are currently working on a presentation about the youth intern program for the Chicago Botanical Garden’s Annual School Gardening Conference (scheduled for June 29, 2013)
Click here for an article about Growing Hope’s Chefs in the Garden series:
Growing Hope has had a great experience working with the grant program. The only thing we might have changed about the summer was our inability to meet in-person with our contact at some point – our schedules never matched. At this time, we don’t have any recommendations.