Most youngsters instinctively grasp concepts like fairness and justice. Where adult ethics may rationalize or equivocate, children tend to see clear distinctions between right and wrong. Little wonder, then, that successful campaigns against injustices like sweatshop labor and animal abuse have been led by children.
Today, our food systems are increasingly linked to a host of vital issues, including our public health, environment, climate change and food justice. And young people have a growing role in bringing about changes to solve such seemingly intractable problems.
One organization, Urban Roots, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, focuses its efforts on helping youth connect the dots between healthy food, healthy living, and a healthy biosphere.
Founded in 2008, the project centers on a 3.5-acre farmstead located minutes from downtown. There, staff and youth interns grow some 25,000 pounds of sustainably raised produce every year. Forty percent of the harvest goes to local hunger organizations, while the rest is sold at farmers markets and through the program’s community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.
Key to the nonprofit’s mission to “transform the lives of young people” is its employment program for youth between the ages of 14 and 17. Each year, the organization hires 24 paid farm interns, three crew leaders, and three agriculture interns who not only help manage the farm operations, but also receive training through workshops on sustainable agriculture, healthy lifestyles, and life and job skills. Since its founding, the program has graduated 191 interns and paid out more than $325,000 in stipends.
While healthy farm practices are a key focus of the educational program, the impact on the young people goes far beyond practical lessons in agriculture. Notable Austin chefs visit campus to teach kitchen and cooking skills. Youth interns supervise farm volunteers—adults as well as other young people—and in so doing, learn vital leadership skills that help generate their capacity to transform their communities when the internship has ended. And the program’s emphasis on food justice (for example, interns volunteer in area food pantries) instills a sense of compassion and a thirst for fairness.
For many participants, this results in a profound sense of empowerment. “Urban Roots taught me that no one is too young to make a difference,” reports one graduate of the program. “In reality it’s the opposite—youth are the ones that make the biggest impact in the world, but they just don’t realize it.”
Programs like Urban Roots that are designed to unfetter this sense of agency and empowerment in today’s teens are perhaps our best hope for a healthy, sustainable, and delicious future.
Organic Valley has always been committed to fostering organic health and wellness in the youth of America and is proud to support Urban Roots.