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Urban farm teaches youth to work, give back to the community

Published: Saturday, April 19 2014 5:00 p.m. MDT

Youth volunteers help with preparing land for planting at Real Food Rising's urban farm on Saturday, April 19, 2014 in Salt Lake City. Much of the produce grown at the 1.5-acre farm is donated to local food pantries or sold at reduced rates.

Hugh Carey, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Musa Taha came to Salt Lake City with his family from Sudan about three years ago, in search of a better life.

The 16-year-old wants to become a brain surgeon and while he excels at school, he spends several afternoons and Saturday mornings farming the 1.5-acre land west of the Neighborhood House on the west side of Salt Lake.

"If you don't do what it takes, you will not get what you want," he said, adding that he often dismisses the "playing around" his friends do. "I came here for a better future."

But Taha is part of an even bigger movement — to provide fresh food to low-income families in his neighborhood.

He is paid a small stipend for his help, but much of the farming is dependent upon donations and volunteers, as well as community partners, including the adjacent Neighborhood House, which loans the land to Real Food Rising for cultivating.

"There is such inequity of who gets really good, organic food," said Mike Evans, director of Real Food Rising, an urban farming program of Utahns Against Hunger. "We just want to raise the question, 'Why can't everyone have it?'"

Low-income neighborhoods around the country have 30 percent fewer supermarkets than can be found in affluent neighborhoods, according to the group. It aims to get people talking about healthier options, even offering educational classes about nutrition to local youth.

Last year, when Real Food Rising farmed just a small portion of land available at the 1050 W. 500 South site, it donated 4,200 pounds of freshly grown foods to local food pantries. This year, in addition to the pantries, the group plans to sell a hefty amount of tomatoes to Squatters restaurant, as well as open a farmstand near the garden to offer produce at reduced prices.

With a grant from the city, the organization plans to include a berry patch and plant fruit trees on the vacant lot. GE Capital also provided funds for an outdoor learning space, complete with a kitchen that will allow Real Food Rising to teach young people how to cook the fresh-grown produce.

Volunteers are invited to help at the property every Saturday morning. The lot has four beehives, which were donated and are tended by a volunteer.

Local seed companies and greenhouses also help out, providing the plants, and the farm is working on producing its own compost with food waste donated from a local recycling business.

Real Food Rising also plans to pay for water it uses at the farm site.

But like any nonprofit, the group could still use more help from the public and businesses alike.

"We rely on lots of people to help us make this possible," Evans said.

A handful of volunteers, as well as Jarett LaTour and Sam Holt, of Salt Lake City, showed up to help Saturday morning. LaTour said Utahns Against Hunger is "a cause I can get behind."

"It feels productive and it is nice to work outside in nice weather," Holt said. He said it is "sad" that people accept food that is grown thousands of miles away instead of growing it at home or supporting local growers.

"We just need more of this type of thing," he said.

Real Food Rising workers and volunteers will also work at other gardens throughout the community, including private homes that pay for the work, Evans said. "It's an opportunity for young people to feel like they can make a difference," he said, adding that it teaches kids about the value of hard work.

Taha said the gardening is "like nothing I've ever experienced. I didn't know anything about plants and vegetables before I came here and (after two years working here) I am an expert."

While he's proud of all the food that comes from the garden, Taha said cherry tomatoes are his favorite because they're "cute" and "tasty." He hopes more people can experience that and learn the things he has.

"I've got to do my best now and take advantage of opportunities to guarantee a better future for myself and my family," he said.

The urban farm, which also conducts fieldtrips for kids, would benefit from cash donations, as they could hire more youth workers, but Evans said the group is looking for a farm truck they could use to deliver produce throughout the growing season. The group is also collecting heavy-duty tomato stakes to aid potentially robust tomato plants, and wood chips to keep the weeds down and develop traffic paths across the property.

For more information, visit www.uah.org/realfoodrising.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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