I admire gardeners.
They seem to have a patience and a confidence about what the earth can do that I never got a handle on. Cultivating the hard work and the awe-inspiring nurturance that goes into gardening is noble work, and I salute those who have the foresight to introduce kids to it early.
One local group, called Youth Farm and Market Project, is all about teaching youngsters to garden while teaching them something about themselves. I recently visited one of its sites on St. Paul’s West Side, a diverse, working-class neighborhood. And, like everywhere else, the area is dealing with its share of the bad economy.
The Youth Farm garden sits up on small hill on a busy corner. Here, some 60 kids, ages 8 to 13, are growing radishes, tomatillos, three different kinds of hot peppers, a special Mexican herb, and cabbage, cucumber, zucchini and flowers. The space is open and bright. A large, colorful wall mural borders one of the garden’s edges.
The young gardeners harvest the vegetables once a week, and deliver them by bicycle to El Burrito Mercado, a neighborhood restaurant and grocery that just started buying produce from Youth Farm.
In addition to growing for El Burrito, each family with kids in the program takes home a basket of vegetables each week for their own tables.
West Side Program Director Amanda Stoelb says the main objective of the program is more than developing gardening or marketing skills.
“We’re growing food to develop youth,” says Program Director Amanda Stoelb. “We’re a youth development organization, and food is a means to that end.”
Though Stoelb and other coordinators oversee Youth Farm, the youngest participants are supervised by high school interns (who were former gardeners in the program). Stoelb says the interns learn what it means to be a mentor and role model, and everyone in the program learns more about cooperation, nurturance and community.
“Yes, we grow food here,” says Stoelb. “It’s not enough to end hunger, but you’re doing something amazing in your community, and it’s part of your identity. For me, how I see it, is having a strong self-identity, as well as understanding yourself and where you fit into the community, is a big component of social change.”
When you meet some of Youth Farm’s young gardeners, it’s easy to see what Stoelb is talking about.
Kiara Martinez, 12, has been a Youth Farm gardener for two summers now. She says growing vegetables makes her proud. She confidently states that she’s good at it and at cooking, too. She says she likes harvesting and transplanting the most, and growing cucumbers is pretty much the best.
She says being part of Youth Farm has meant she’s gotten to know practically everybody in the neighborhood, and the program has brought her unexpected praise.
“I baby-sit for my neighbors down the block,” says Martinez. “And they say, ‘We want our kids to be just like you. When they’re old enough, we’re going to bring them to Youth Farm.’ And they started growing their own garden because of what I told them about Youth Farm.”
One of Martinez’s fellow gardeners, 10-year-old Nora Murphy, is now in her third year with the program. She says she loves the friends and experiences she gets each summer with the Farm. She especially likes the weeding, watering and harvesting.
“We love the West Side,” says Murphy. “But a lot of people give us a bad rap — guns and crack, weed and everything like that. But it’s nothing like that. Everybody in the neighborhood protects each other, and we grow our own food and keep everything healthy.”
Martinez and Murphy really want you to know that you should come to the West Side garden’s Harvest Festival tonight and come see what they’re all about. The students and staff will prepare a huge meal. There will be performances by the hip-hop dance activity group and other fun stuff.
What: Youth Farm and Market Project’s Harvest Festival
When: Friday, Aug. 14
Time: 5 to 8 p.m.
Where: West Side Garden, Robert Street between Morton and Page