SALT LAKE CITY — Like the gardens they tend, 10 teenagers taking part in Utahns Against Hunger's inaugural Real Food Rising summer youth program are a work in progress.
They're learning what it takes to make a garden grow, but they're also acquiring important job and life skills. During field trips to community pantries and kitchens, they're being schooled about the issue of hunger. More important, they are discovering how they can make a difference.
The experience has been eye-opening, said Sara Ma, a West High student.
In two weeks' time, the students have learned to use a variety of tools and how to tend plants ranging from delicate herbs to hearty winter squash. They have also served at a food pantry and a dining hall that primarily feeds homeless people.
Ma said the group's visit to the New Roots urban farm in West Valley City was particularly eye-opening.
Refugees farm the parcel to grow food for consumption and sale, as well as to build community with participants from a wide array of ethnic communities.
"At New Roots, I couldn't fathom how many families need that food — that and a lot more," Ma said.
The experience has given Ma a new appreciation of the work required to grow organic food. "We don't respect our food. That's why we waste so much of it," she said.
Like many of the youths in the program, Ma had no experience in gardening. Real Food Rising director Mike Evans and agriculture intern Kate Rogers, an environmental science major at Westminster College, have taught the students how to use gardening tools, proper techniques for planting and weeding along with the finer points of tending plants such as pinching flowers off basil plants to stimulate the growth of the plants' leaves.
The youths also learn important life skills, such as applying and interviewing for a job. "Even the kids who don't get in the program get a job-seeking experience," Evans said.
Once hired, the teens are expected to show up on time ready to work and dressed in their Real Food Rising program T-shirts. They're likewise expected to work hard and treat co-workers and supervisors with respect. Youths who do not meet the program's standards face consequences, which can range from warnings, withholding a portion of their biweekly stipends or terminating them from the program.
However, the youths also have the opportunity to make amends. "It's holding them to tough standards but it gives them a chance to fix their mistakes," Rogers said.
The students, ages 14-17, were selected for the pilot program among applicants from Salt Lake area high schools. They work from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Together they will grow and distribute hundreds of pounds of organic produce, most of which will be given to partnering community organizations that feed people in need.
The students have planted and are tending two gardens in partnerships with Neighborhood House and Wasatch Community Gardens. They also lend a hand at other community gardens.
Another student, Braulio Amaya Franco, said he has enjoyed working outdoors. "My dad is a hard worker. He works in construction. He says if you put your heart into what you're doing, doors are always going to be open to you," he said.
Although the students are just a couple of weeks into the program, which concludes Aug. 9, Amaya said he enjoyed nurturing the tender plants from seeds and starts.
"It feels good to see it grow after all the hard work and effort you put into it," he said.
Evans coordinated The Food Project in Boston, where youths farmed 3 acres in the city and 30 acres in the suburbs growing food for needy people. He also led a youth development farming program in Austin. Evans, who has also worked as a teacher, relocated to Utah when his wife was hired to teach at Westminster College.
Rogers said Evans brings a wealth of experience to the effort both in terms of gardening techniques and helping youth develop their potential. "It's an awesome program. Mike has a lot of experience doing it."
Over the past two weeks, Rogers has watched as the students come together as a team. "It's been interesting to watch this very diverse group of human beings grow together, find common interests and exchange ideas. We're breaking down a lot of boundaries here," she said.
Rogers, who also helps manage Westminster College's organic garden, said she looks forward to the students harvesting the fruits — and vegetables — of their labors.
"The youth have planted these seeds. Ideally, they'll see it all the way through."
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