Features and Occasionals

Cultivating Food, Youth and Justice

By Kay Denton

Mike Evans, director of Real Food Rising, gathered us volunteers into a circle. We were going to play a game in which he would read a statement about food and food production. If it pertained to us, then we should move to a different spot in the group.

The last person to shift read an explanation out loud, enlarging Mike’s initial fact. I stayed put when he asked if we ever ate genetically modified foods. Not I, I thought smugly. Then, I remembered reading somewhere that about half of all soy beans are genetically modified; in fact soy beans are one of the most frequently modified foods (some estimates indicate up to 30,000 different products on grocery store shelves are “modified” due mainly to many processed foods containing soy). So much for my superior attitude. At the end, Evans asked each of us to state something we had learned during the exercise.

We were all there to help Real Food Rising (uah.org/realfoodrising) with its final planting of veggies and flowers in the plot of ground next to the parking lot for Neighborhood House, a westside nonprofit that provides affordable day care and support services for low-income children and adults (nhutah.org). The growing area is shared with a community garden sponsored by Wasatch Community Gardens (wasatchgardens.org). Besides breaking the ice, the point of the circle was to educate us about food, its production and relationship to social justice, and our eating habits in this country. Did you know, for example, that the average person living in the U.S. annually consumes 40 pounds of high fructose corn syrup, the main sweetener used in sodas (over a person’s lifetime, that translates to 313 gallons)? Or, that low-income neighborhoods have 30% fewer supermarkets than more affluent areas? (8.4% of the U.S. population—23.5 million people—live in low-income neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket, according to the 2000 Census.)

Evans is no newcomer to intertwining the concepts of sustainable agriculture, youth employment/enrichment and social justice. He worked with a similar project in Boston (The Food Project, thefoodproject.org) and co-founded Urban Roots in Austin, a youth development program based on sustainable agriculture that also increases access to healthy food (urbanrootsatx.org). He and his wife moved to Salt Lake City in 2010 where he gave himself a little breather before designing Real Food Rising (RFR) in October of that year and seeking a home for it. Gina Cornia, Executive Director of Utahns Against Hunger (uah.org), saw the connection with the organization’s mission to “create the political and public will to end hunger” and its early years of community farming initiatives. She invited him to join the staff.

Evans set about honing his concepts and adapting them to Salt Lake City’s unique cultural aspects. The lynch pin of the program is youth and without their input, RFR would be doomed. He conducted focus groups with 130 young people of various backgrounds to solicit their ideas, comments and support. He also recruited 10 of them as members of two crews, each with its own intern/leader for this inaugural year of the program.

The basic principles of RFR are food production, education, food access, youth job training, and building bridges between and among communities. These five pillars translate to:

• Growing a lot of food. Every Tuesday, the RFR crews will deliver three-quarters of the produce to hunger relief agencies, which assists people facing food insecurity while reinforcing the notion of connecting to the larger community;

• Educating RFR adult volunteers and employed youth as well as the general public about food in this country;

• Accessing food means eventually making it available at farmers’ markets and other venues supported by community councils and the City. This year, RFR will deliver produce to hunger relief agencies, but anticipate selling 60% of it at a variety of locations in the future and donating the remainder. The endeavor becomes both a revenue generator for the program and a food distribution mechanism;

• Youth job training encompasses more than just showing them how to plant and cultivate crops. The high schoolers will participate in a seven-week summer program that includes workshops on money management (they are paid for their efforts), agriculture, food systems and justice, food insecurity, cooking, nutrition and composting among other topics. Community volunteers will help conduct the workshops. The hope is that some of the crew members will remain at the end of the summer to lead the program and/or become public speakers.

Joining a crew is no easy task. Each participant had to fill out an application, submit a letter of recommendation from an adult non-relative and pass muster in a series of interviews. This is a job, after all, so the process follows any other format for finding work. Evans expects, for example, that a crew member who can’t make it to work is the one calling in, not the parent. In an interesting twist that reinforces their responsibilities, the youth will direct adult volunteers who come to help in the garden. The crew members will receive weekly feedback on their work, and twice a year, have the opportunity to critique the staff and the program formally; and

• Building bridges means that the youth are intentionally recruited from the east and west sides of the City with a mix of incomes and races/ethnicities, and each gender comprising 50%. Both crews will have an equal proportion of females and males. As Evans puts it, it’s a chance for the individuals to “learn and grow positively rather than colliding [culturally].” The participants’ families are also part of this process. Their support is critical to keeping students involved and motivated when they get discouraged.

Future plans for RFR include expanding their acreage (they currently have a second plot at the Fairgrounds with Wasatch Commu­nity Gardens), field trips by elementary schools to the growing areas for on-site education, and community lunches in which local chefs donate their time to work with the crews and create meals using the produce. Regardless of the directions the program takes, Evans wants to teach young people that hard work can be, and often is, fun and satisfying; that they can contribute and enjoy it. He is also still looking for crew leaders for this fall. Agricultural backgrounds not necessary, but experience working with youth is.

For more information and ways to support RFR, go to uah.org/realfoodrising or their facebook page, facebook.com/realfoodrising.

Kay Denton writes and gardens in Salt Lake City. She is a longtime CATALYST contributor.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2012.