Here’s a recipe for leadership: take a group of kids eager to learn and teach them community engagement skills. Add some passion for a particular cause or group of causes, and you create social change from the ground up. There are organizations all over the country that are taking youth engagement models and creating young leaders who are passionate about issues that affect our country, including healthy food access, hunger issues, and sustainable farming. GreenLeaf is one such program.
If you go to Sustainability Park on any given morning during the summer months, you may see teens playing freeze tag, potentially a farm stand and farm equipment, but one thing you won’t miss: beautiful looking vegetables (lots of them) and youth making sure they grow. GreenLeaf, a program founded by Leah Bry, is a non-profit organization based out of Denver’s Sustainability Park, which engages youth ages 14-18 around urban agriculture and food justice, and instills in them the value of community engagement and social activism. GreenLeaf’s mission is to “cultivate powerful youth and food justice through urban agriculture,” and does so through offering seamless year-round programming for youth for 5-7 hours a week afterschool and 20 hours per week during the summer. The organization focuses on kids from low-income families; many of the youth that participate are from immigrant and refugee families, and 90% qualify for free or reduced price school lunch.
Superficially, GreenLeaf kids are turning dirt, water, and seeds into vegetables. If you dig a little deeper, these kids are learning something infinitely more valuable than the correct way to prune a tomato plant: they are learning how to be leaders. Through exploring issues of health, nutrition, and social justice, these teens are budding community organizers, canvassing the neighborhood, developing relationships with their neighbors, and igniting social change. They are doing all this simultaneously while earning a fair wage and growing food in the community. In 2012, 2,800 pounds of food were grown and distributed in the community through their CSA, on-site farm stand, and donations, and over 200 community residents were engaged by the youth in conversations about the farm, and food issues in Denver neighborhoods.
Encouraging and growing youth to become passionate about social issues enhances the potential that these same kids who are fighting for justice will become adults who do not cease that fight. The combination of youth empowerment, food justice, and the knowledge and ability to grow your own food is powerful, and not something these kids will easily forget. Organizations like GreenLeaf reconnect families with urban farms, one large piece in helping to build a healthy local food system. For those in the community that have food security hardships, this isn’t a replacement of federal nutrition programs, but an added benefit that creates a diversified food access model that can be replicated in rural and urban areas.
These kids are modeling the value of neighborhood partnerships in achieving the goals of food access, food justice, and sustainable livelihoods. The youth are also learning vital skills, have a true knowledge about food issues and food justice, and are teaching others how to fight for their rights in the community to food access and healthy eating. They are learning that its not okay to have only unhealthy foods in their corner stores instead of fresh produce, are learning the importance of access to fresh food, and are making sure to eat their greens while doing it.
For more information on GreenLeaf and how you can help, go to www.GreenLeafdenver.org.
Victoria Treski, Child Nutrition Associate for Hunger Free Colorado.