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School Garden Provides Food for Thought

Thirteen neighborhood teens from seventh through 10th grades tended to the Junior Green Youth Farm this summer, receiving $200 apiece plus gardening and broader workplace skills.

Gordon Walek

Only weeks ago, eighth-grader Willie Thompson said he was “just a little lazy kid.”

But that was before he got hired to spend the summer working at Reavis Elementary School in Bronzeville, where he tended 16 raised garden beds and even built some with heavy railway ties and a sledgehammer.

The Elev8 summer program, run by the Chicago Botanic Garden, is designed to teach young teens not only gardening skills—and information on related topics such as plant growth, the food industry and nutrition—but also workplace skills like teamwork and communication. LISC Chicago's Elev8 program supports after-school activities in five Chicago public middle schools.

The Junior Green Youth Farm, which just completed its second summer at Reavis, is part youth-development camp and part real-life job, explains program leader Ben Jaffe. Kids get team-building exercises and weekly field trips to other school and community gardens around Chicago. But they also have serious job responsibilities that earn them a $200 stipend at summer’s end. This season, the program drew 13 neighborhood teens between seventh and 10th grades.

“We may get people who are just interested in the money, but it gets them in the door and gets them exposed to things they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” said Jaffe.

For some kids, the offer of a stipend "gets them in the door and gets them exposed to things they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” said program leader Ben Jaffe.

Gordon Walek

Willie said he was drawn by the money “at first. But now I’m here to learn more about all types of plants and vegetables and how to do new things.”

One hot midsummer morning, Willie and his co-worker Kristopher Guilford, also an eighth-grader, inspected a bed of mint and sage near the Reavis entrance. 

“Do you pull them from the root?” Willie asked a program staff member standing nearby.

“Or do you just pull them by the leaf like kale?” Kristopher wondered.

At a group of picnic tables behind the school, several students chopped fresh cabbage and carrots for coleslaw. The kids cook and eat some of what they grow and bring some home to their families.

Eating vegetables they’ve grown themselves, including Swiss chard, purple cabbage, eggplant and squash, has definitely improved their eating habits at home, they reported.  “Now that I know about more stuff, I try more stuff,” said Kristopher, who added that he’s even learned to like beets.

To further promote good nutrition, students are invited to participate in a “Get Healthy” challenge. Using a chart hanging on the side of a shed, kids monitor their progress on a number of health related goals including drinking water and avoiding junk food.

Vincent Martin, an eighth grader, said the challenge made an impression on him. “I stopped eating chips, laid off the fried food and started playing football.”

This dry erase board mounted on a fence lays out everyone's duties for the day--but the student workers go beyond what's assigned, pitching in wherever they're needed.

Gordon Walek

Learning teamwork is another program goal. Students are assigned to work crews and take turns each week as team leader. If the team isn’t sure what to do, the leader finds out and then explains it to the group, Vincent said. “You come back and teach your crew how to do the work better.”

Just as in a real job, student workers are expected to take the initiative. When the coleslaw was finished, Kristopher hosed the blacktop down and swept the debris into a drain without prompting.

“They know what they have to do, and they do it,” observed program intern Erana Jackson.

The staff is strict about job conduct, and students are evaluated weekly in front of their crew. Repeated lateness and verbal disrespect, for instance, can mean $10 docked from their stipend. But for the young employees, there is also forgiveness. Two straight weeks with no further transgressions earns the money back.

“It teaches you responsibility,” said 10th-grader Ebony Palmer.

Eating vegetables they've grown and picked themselves has definitely improved their overall eating habits, students say.

Gordon Walek

The program also teaches communication, students said. For an open house the following day to showcase Reavis’ Elev8 summer programs, the teens needed to be ready to interact with guests as they sold their produce at a farm stand and led a garden tour.

Jaffe guided several through a practice run, prompting them with questions like, “How is compost made? What’s the purpose of mulch? What’s the difference between annuals and perennials?”

Many students said they were shy around each other at the beginning of the summer—while they live in the Bronzeville area, they go to a number of schools. But working together, they said they learned to speak up and ask each other questions, talk about problems and help each other out.

Willie, who didn’t feel comfortable working with the others at first, said he now considers them friends. The whole experience this summer gave him a new philosophy to carry with him into the school year.

“Some things are heavy and some things are hard,” he said, thinking back to the raised beds he built at the start of summer, “but you have to keep pushing.”

Posted in Education, Health, Quad Communities

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