“Cultivators of the earth,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “are the most valuable citizens.” The unique combination of hard work and stewardship that goes into farming, he thought, made the ingredients for responsible and committed members of the community.

At Lake Valley Camp, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, organizers are putting Jefferson’s philosophy to a practical test. Three years ago, the camp, which provides leadership training for children from underserved neighborhoods, launched a garden and cooking-class program intended to teach youngsters how to grow and prepare their own foods.LVC 2

The program works like this: Under the tutelage of an adult farm-to-school and gardening educator, three “garden assistants,” teenagers who have trained for years at Lake Valley Camp, plan meals and supervise younger campers in tending the vegetable garden and chickens, and preparing meals.

Because Lake Valley Camp is designed to cultivate leadership skills, the teenagers are given a great deal of latitude in their work. “I literally teach just one cooking session at the beginning of the month,” says Sara Tedeschi, who supervises the program. “After that, each garden assistant takes a turn being at the head chef’s table. They learn to take over the classes, so by the end, they are both planning and leading the classes.”

The unique program is consistent with the camp’s larger mission to “develop the abilities of high school students and young adults from underserved neighborhoods to teach, lead, and inspire children from the same neighborhoods.” Headquartered in Milwaukee, the camp also operates out of a 650-acre farmstead in western Wisconsin, near Boscobel.

Founded ten years ago by Jim Flint, the organization has several aspects that distinguish it from similar projects. As in the garden and cooking program, most of the camp offerings put teens in positions of responsibility, with adult mentors to help develop their leadership skills. And because services for underserved youth are all-too-often sporadic and short-term, Lake Valley Camp focuses on ongoing involvement. Children enter the program at age seven, and are encouraged to remain involved until they graduate high school. Some of them continue to work with the camp as young adults.

This approach can lead to life-changing results. The gardening and cooking program is a good example. Many graduates of the project (including one who has gone on to become a cook) speak of their work in the garden and kitchen as transformational. The steep learning curve gave them a challenge that increased their confidence and skill. And like many urban children, they had experienced little opportunity to dig around in the dirt, much less garden, before Lake Valley Camp.

One former garden assistant describes this experience thus: “When I plant the seed and it makes the root, and then it makes the stem, and it makes the leaf, and it makes the flower and then it makes the fruit, you’re just like, wow, I did that. It just relaxes you, and you smell it, you eat it, and you just like, take all that beauty inside you.”

Organic Valley has always been committed to fostering leadership and food awareness in the youth of America and is proud to support Lake Valley Camp.