Some high schoolers are scouted by colleges to be athletes, others are recruited by national debate teams, but this organization travels to local high schools to look for none other than farmers. The Botanic Garden’s Green Youth Farm, located in Waukegan, Illinois, pays eighty students ages 14-18 to work on their organic farm during the summer season. It’s a 4-year-old program that combines youth leadership development, agricultural education, job training, and community service all under one umbrella – food! But farm coordinator Eliza says that “food is just a vehicle” for the social justice work carried out by the farm.
By planting, nurturing, harvesting, and selling food, student farmers gain integral knowledge that puts them on the path to success. They learn everything from interplanting leaks and tomatillos, to beekeeping, to grilling at weekly cook-outs, to customer service skills at the Chicago Botanic Garden farmers market. In the spirit of learning leadership skills, my tour was led not by Eliza but by Angelica, a recent graduate of Waukegan High School and a “crew leader” at Green Youth Farm. It’s her second year working here, so she was promoted to the higher position after the initial application and interview process that all students must complete. Angelica showed off the farm with expertise, pointing out with pride the new tomato trellises she and her group had just built. Although like many of her co-workers this was her first job ever, she says she “liked working with the environment,” so she came back to the job. She likes it so much she even wants to incorporate what she’s learning here into her studies at Cornell University this fall.
Angelica and her compatriots are already putting their skills to work in their homes and communities. The goal is to combine accessibility and knowledge to incite change. If mom doesn’t normally buy veggies, nor know how to cook them, then Angelica’s family will go without them. But since Angelica brings home the goods, she can get even her teenage brother interested in eating conscientiously. Apart from the home, students share their knowledge and produce at WIC clinics for nutrition of women, infants and children. Like the students, many WIC coupon-holders don’t have access to fresh produce from farmers markets. Thus, GYF’s vision of food accessibility is fulfilled through the solidarity of the community.
With unemployment as low as ever for teens, the opportunity to work on GYF is a welcome one for many high schoolers. And it’s a win-win-win situation – and yes, I meant three wins. The students get access to fresh knowledge of food and nutrition, they get to share this knowledge with the community, and they are given the support they need to succeed – however you define success. According to Eliza, “there’s no static definition. Eating more veggies, that’s success. Winning a speech competition at Colgate University by talking about the current food industry, that’s success. Graduating from high school, it’s all success.” Eliza was describing the bounty of ways that graduates of GYF utilize the support they get. This type of summer job is taking root across U.S. high schools, from Natick Community Farm‘s Leaders in Training Program on the east coast, to this teen starting her own CSA farm on the west. And just as the plants in the garden bloom, with a little nurturing these teens will surely blossom into healthy, conscientious adults.