Eight weeks ago, Veronica Stewart had no idea what a purple bean was. Now, the 17-year-old knows more about them than most. She knows how to plant their seeds, how to harvest them, how to pick them, how to sell them to customers at farmers markets, and how, when you cook them, their dark purple changes to green. They should be called purple-to-green beans, really. One of Stewart’s bosses calls them “magic beans.”
Stewart is one of six participants in this year’s Youth Community Agriculture Program, run by The Food Literacy Project at Oxmoor Farm. It’s an immersive program that pays teenagers to work — and learn — for seven long, sometimes blisteringly hot summer weeks on an eight-acre Field Day Family Farm, discreetly tucked away behind a golf course in St. Matthews.
Activities include the manual labor of planting, harvesting and pulling weeds — lots and lots of pulling weeds. The goal is to instill solid relationships between healthy food and at-risk teenagers. All of the program’s participants qualify for free or reduced lunches, a factor that often correlates to unhealthy eating and physical problems down the road.
Each Friday is cooking day, where participants learn how to prepare the foods they’ve helped grow. They’ve made everything from pizza with Mayor Fischer to beet-and-chocolate-chip cookies and a summer squash quiche they call “squiche.”
Deandrae Hughes, 17, participated in his third YCAP season this summer. Before he joined the program, he’d never tried yellow wax beans, beets, squash or purple beans. Now, his palate knows a wide variety of natural foods, and he takes ownership over the food growing process.
“You’re growing it from the dirt,” Hughes says. “It’s your product. It’s yours. To be able to trust that it’s good, and for people to trust you that it’s good when they buy it from you, that’s having a connection to your food.”
Veggies are sold to local retailers like Grasshoppers and, by the teens themselves, at farmers markets. They have also visited produce-delivery programs like New Roots’ Fresh Stops and ventured into a giant refrigerator at the Dare to Care warehouse. It’s during these working field trips that students test their knowledge of their produce and hone the public speaking and sales experience that will translate to almost any career they choose to pursue.
Hughes doesn’t yet know what he wants to pursue after he graduates from Liberty High School. He thinks about the agriculture industry, but he also knows how much hard work, blood and sweat go into it. In the short term, he’s looking into starting his own garden at his foster mom’s house.
Nobody in this summer’s YCAP class is committed to a future career in food justice or culinary arts, but each says the skills they learned in the program would apply to wherever they ended up. Stewart would like to become a registered nurse and help keep patients healthy by promoting fresh vegetables in their diet. Malcolm Ratliff, another participant, also envisions himself in health care — as a doctor.
“This isn’t just a summer job,” says Carol Gunderson, the executive director for YCAP. “They’ve changed in a lot of ways. Confidence is one. I’ve seen pride in their work. They’ve all been stretched out of their comfort zones. The ones that are soft spoken speak up more. The entrepreneurial growth has been amazing.”
The first incarnation of YCAP began in 2006 as the Entrepreneurial Youth Development Program and was a partnership between The Food Literacy Project and the Portland Community Center. Eight to 10 teenagers were shuttled twice a week to the farm for holistic learning about the local food system, as well as food justice issues.
Last year, the mayor’s office and Kentuckiana Works became involved to expand the program. Time at the farm doubled to 30 hours per week, and teens were selected from beyond the Portland neighborhood. Originally, the number of participants was also going to be expanded, but promised funding was pulled, leading to six admitted teens.
Gunderson hopes additional funding comes through next year’s growing season. The Food Literacy Project’s largest fundraiser is their annual Field-to-Fork, scheduled for Sept. 29. She would like to have different roles for the cohort members, who vary from repeat participants like Hughes to newcomers with no experience with farming or vegetables. That mixture of experience levels is important, Gunderson says, because it creates new learning environments for everyone. The more experienced learn to teach. The newcomers learn patience and have a peer they can aspire to be like.
YCAP’s program coordinators hope those lessons seep into the teen’s conversations and interactions with people outside the farm — their families, friends, classmates.
Ratliff says his friends are always curious to learn about the job that keeps their buddy too tired to hang out with them after work. Ratliff’s mother admits her son has taught her a thing or two about preparing food. She’s also stopped having to bribe him to finish veggies, and he no longer complains when she drags him grocery shopping. These are changes she never expected when he was selected for the program early this summer.
During a question-and-answer session last month at a capstone lunch held to celebrate the end of this summer’s program, someone asked the six hard-working teens whether they could kick-start a trend that makes eating healthy cool among their friends. After the initial laughter and nods subsided, Ratliff began in earnest a suggestion about local farms partnering with individual schools to bring fresh produce to children. Rudimentary, yes, but the idea might be enough to spark greater change among the community at large, which is exactly what the program aims to do.