Since 2010, Crops has managed the Young Urban Farmers (YUF) program, first at Mickle Middle School and now at five Lincoln Public School locations. At each site, we build gardens, provide hands-on training and educate about gardening, all phases of food production, processing and distribution, as well as nutrition and environmental sustainability. At these schools we primarily work with students in the after school Community Learning Centers (CLC), though we have had success at Mickle with bringing Family and Consumer Science (FCS) and special education classes out to the garden during the school day.
We target schools in low-income neighborhoods with high diversity. We are currently working at five schools in Lincoln where there is significant need for specialized programming on gardening, cooking and nutrition. Rates of participation in the free and reduced lunch program are high at all of the schools and there is considerable ethnic diversity at each school. Low-income minority populations are at greatest risk for food insecurity and dietary diseases.
Our first goal is moving children away from computer screens and helping them feel comfortable outdoors.
Once this has been established, it is our goal that the children will take the lessons learned from these farmers and apply it to their garden and farmers’ markets.
Our Young Urban Farmers (YUF) program continues to provide high-quality education for Lincoln youth about the importance of local, sustainable agriculture and the ways in which they can participate now. In addition, we provide opportunities for students to explore how farming could be a viable, rewarding career to pursue. To do so, we provide weekly hands-on lessons at various school sites, where students work in the school garden, learning how to grow produce using organic practices. At Mickle Middle School, we added a hoop house to extend the growing season and give students an opportunity to learn about multi-season production.
We supplement this hands-on education with tours of local sustainable farms, and farmers’ markets where students get to hear directly from successful farmers about their businesses. We maintain close ties to local farmers who have either come through our farmer training program, or are involved in common projects in the Lincoln community. These collaborators are the ideal candidates to teach youth about how to be successful as a sustainable farmer, as well as the many challenges associated with small-scale farming.
This project involved not only Crops staff, but staff from the CLC program at Mickle, school staff and administrators, the farmers and other local experts who assisted with the educational aspect of our program. Each collaborator facilitated the learning experience by assisting with outreach to students, transporting students for tours and activities, and providing their time and expertise. We also work with numerous volunteers who assist with maintenance and upkeep of the school gardens, including several master gardener trainees and University students.
Our youth program reaches more than 200 students annually, with regular programming at schools and a Cedars home for teen girls. The funding from SARE allowed us to provide programming for more than 100 Mickle students (over 2 years) and 180 youth participated in the farm tours. In follow-up interviews with the youth who participated in our program, Mickle students unanimously reported that they enjoyed the program and would enroll in it again. In addition, students frequently talk about their experiences touring local farms and the excitement they felt on those trips. Even long after their trips, students talk about the farm tours and discuss what they learned.
Students in the YUF program learn about soil, composting, plant propagation, seed starting and many other facets of sustainable agriculture. In addition, through the tours and other lessons, they gain insight into business planning, marketing and how to be a successful entrepreneur. At Mickle, we are working with YUF participants to revive the student-run farmers’ market at the school. To better prepare the students for that project, we toured the University Place farmers’ market where they interviewed market vendors about their businesses and learned about the many tasks that go into a seemingly simple market stand. To supplement that experience, we had Megan Jackson, coordinator of two local farmers’ markets, come speak to the students about how to operate a successful market stand.
Our weekly lessons with students focus on the social responsibility of sustainable agriculture. We talk frequently about food insecurity, working conditions for farm workers and the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture. These lessons provide perspective for students who, until that point, had no awareness of the complexities, and social implications of their food system.
Our main takeaway from this project is simply that the farm tours are impactful–both for the students and the farmers–and there needs to be more of them. Conducting these tours has been an important confirmation for us that we have our work cut out for us, if our goal is to encourage younger generations to get more involved in farming. Taking students to local farms exposes the reality that they know very little, if anything, about farming and the food system. Students who visit farms with us talk about the tours months after the fact and retain the knowledge for a long time.
Lincoln is very fortunate to have a committed, passionate farming community, but they need to be a part of the education process. All of the farmers we’ve worked with for these tours have been gracious hosts with unique perspectives to offer, but many lack any formal training working with the diverse populations Crops works with. For example, after one of our tours in 2014 the host farmer, a former teacher with years of youth education experience, commented that she felt “culturally unprepared” for the group we brought to the farm. While local farmers routinely interact with the public at markets and CSA pick-up events, those audiences come with a firm understanding of local foods.
Future projects would benefit from greater coordination with the farmers ahead of time to ensure that specific learning objectives were identified and met during the tours. In addition, these tours could be more successful if local farmers received some training on how to work with our kids, to ensure they are able to convey their knowledge and experience in a way that reaches the youth effectively. Lastly, we feel that an opportunity exists to take our students to tour conventional farms as well as local, sustainable farms as a valuable comparison.
Program information is shared in several ways. We regularly share information about our youth program via social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter. We also send weekly updates to supporters through a digital newsletter and on our website, which receives 23,000 visitors every month. The most effective means of outreach, typically, is public presentations to local schools and community groups. Crops staff routinely does outreach to schools and youth groups to talk about our youth program and to convey the many benefits for participants. A program specific brochure is used to disseminate information to interested groups and allows us to easily connect with potential participants.