When you approach the Urban Roots booth at the Sustainable Food Center’s Downtown Austin Farmers Markets, you first notice the bundles of fresh produce and then become aware that you are being helped by teenagers. These high schoolers aren’t just bagging the veggies, but are engaging customers on how to best prepare different items and even occasionally upselling you on an extra batch of kale or turnips before they weigh your selections and make change.
The Urban Roots kids have detailed knowledge of the produce they sell because they also grow it as part of a 25 week paid internship and youth development program. Each year twenty-four youth (ages 14-17) are selected to participate in the program that grows over 30,000 pounds of produce on a 3.5 acre farm. They donate 40% of their yield to local food pantries and soup kitchens and sell the rest through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, at farmers markets and wholesale.
As much as the Urban Roots kids learn about food and eating healthy, they learn even more about confidence and leadership. When you meet one of the teens, there is no foot shuffling with eyes diverted to the ground. These kids look you straight in the eyes, extend a firm handshake and greet you with a clear voice, “My name is…” It’s refreshing and all too rare to meet a teenager who can interact with adults with so much assurance.
The five year old program started as a program of Youth Launch and spun off into a standalone nonprofit in 2011. The first year the program graduated 16 kids. The initial group of interns was invited to apply to be crew leaders for the second year – 10 of 16 reapplied. By the third year, they were able to expand the program to its current size of 24 interns with three crew leaders and three agricultural interns.
Executive Director Max Elliott says that the organization is focused on moving from start-up mode to a stable, sustaining organization. “We are creating more opportunities for people to volunteer and have more meaningful experiences on our farm with more open houses and partnerships where we can use the space for the public. We are also creating more opportunities for the the young people to engage the community.”
As part of they program, Urban Roots finds ways for the youth to see where the food goes when they donate it. During the summer, they help serve and prepare food at Caritas. This last summer, the chef taught the kids how to make eggplant lasagna, with eggplant from the farm, which they then served to the Caritas clients.
“The kids were so moved by people who loved and appreciated the food and that people wanted seconds of something they made,” Elliott says. “When you have that kind of reward, it makes the work in the fields during the summer worth it. That’s why we are doing this.”
This year, Urban Roots partnered with other organizations to expand their reach. A Glimmer of Hope Foundation sponsored a farm to school project that allowed kids from Connally High School, Garza High School and a few special needs groups participate in an abbreviated six-week program. Connally’s culinary program took the produce they harvested and prepared a potluck at the school. With help from JP’s Peace, Love & Happiness Foundation and Green Corn Project, they were also able to install gardens in at the homes of the Urban Roots alumni.
Expanding that reach is important because the influence of the program continues years after the interns leave the farms. Elliott said he had recently heard from one of the interns who participated in the first year of the program, a shy teenager who only worked for six weeks and didn’t apply to come back the second year. Now in college, the young man called to thank Elliott for what he learned at Urban Roots, telling him that half the reason he was successful and on track for law school was because of the program. “We don’t always see the full impact until years later, but it is having a profound impact,” says Elliott.
Urban Roots isn’t just growing vegetables, they are growing leaders. You can support Urban Roots by giving, volunteering your time, joining their CSA program and buying from their booth at the Downtown Austin Farmers Market.