Changing Lives, One Tomato at a Time… 1: Acre, 7: Teen Workers, 200: Fed Daily
Each Saturday at 5 a.m., a small group of teenagers in Corvallis wake up with smiles on their faces happy to greet the rain or cold and staff a booth at the farmers’ market to sell some produce. Sound like any teenagers you know? They are part of the Workforce and Education Department of Community Services Consortium (CSC), a community action agency serving Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties.
The program outcomes are for students to earn a GED or diploma, to enter into post-secondary training or employment, and to achieve literacy and numeracy fluency.
But the ultimate goal is something much more.
“We really saw this as a way to teach youth work readiness skills and life skills. To grow your own food and think about what you’re eating,” said Sharee Cooper, a CSC employee who started the garden in 2009. “The goals of the program are to engage as many youth as we can, so we intentionally overstaff the farmers’ market booth because we’re trying to teach something. It would be challenging in that model to ever break even. But it is our goal to sell as much as we can and bring as much revenue back as we can.”
At the corner of 2nd and Western in downtown Corvallis, the garden is highly visible, inviting the public to pause and engage with it. CSC and the youth like it that way.
“It’s like one of the best-kept secrets downtown. People visit to see what is going on. If you come down once a week, you can see how much things change,” said Armand Schoppy, teacher and Youth Garden crew leader.
Passers-by wander through a demonstration garden filled with orderly boxes of onions, garlic, fava beans, and salad greens. Visitors ask questions, turning the students into teachers. On the day I visited, a man watched as two students picked pansies for pansy petal jelly. Pretty soon, he was engaging in a conversation and wandering into the little greenhouse.
Perhaps it’s the communal nature of gardening that draws people. People love to eat. More than that, we love seeing where our food comes from and we respond to the beauty of flowers and fruit, especially in a city. Growing food is a complex process that requires many hands to make it work. For many of us, it is a wonderful mystery why we are drawn into the soil. At the CSC Youth Garden, the young people tend their garden like parents their children.
Everything follows organic practices. At certain times of year, they make and preserve salsas, jellies, and jams for value-added agriculture. The money they make goes right back into the program to buy seeds and pots and other items.
Kayla is a mom who enjoys the garden more than she ever did going to school. This is her third year in the program and she is close to getting her GED with help from staff. She dropped out of school at 15 and does not miss the crowds of people or the immaturity of her classmates. When she mentions her three-year-old daughter, her grin grows wide and her eyes smile. When I asked about preserving, she is all business.
Her specialty is jams and jellies. She walked me through the steps to make dandelion jelly. “It tastes just like dandelion flowers,” she responded when asked to describe it.
Kayla has experimented with more than 11 different kinds, including lemon and lime thyme jelly and a mean Hungarian pepper jelly. Her aspirations go beyond the canner, though. Someday she hopes to become a nurse or perhaps a chef.
Youth Program Manager Sean Larsen sees this step towards a career as a critical outcome for the program’s students. “Even if they don’t go on in gardening or farming, it’s still a tool for us to teach them job readiness skills so they understand: What is customer service? What is it to come out every day and take care of your part of the property? Through the whole experience, they are learning a lot about how to find and keep a job.”
Cooper agrees: “We thought it was a great opportunity to get youth involved in customer service, participating in that, so that’s what prompted us to start the project.”
Austin, a 20-year-old with a quiet voice, grew up farming and likes working with the customers at the market, even at 6 a.m. “Sometimes I’m a little haggard but, you know, I make it through,” he joked.
He is working towards a fermentation science degree. He will leave in June and have close to $1,000 in scholarship money from the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps.
He also really likes tomatoes. One of his favorites has thorns—an experimental variety he and others learned about this winter while researching seeds, crops, and cultivars.
“I check it usually every other day to make sure it’s fine. There’s only a small amount because they’re really hard to germinate, so I baby them,” Austin said.
He presented it for inspection from among the hundreds of healthy, strong starts the program has overflowing in its yard that Allan Bros. Coffee donates to the program. It also has fruit trees, chickens, orderly compost piles, and a lovely hoop house. There’s an astounding number of healthy plant starts. A new partnership means this abundance will have room to grow and more students can reap the benefits.
CSC Youth Garden and the Children’s Farm Home of Corvallis have entered into an agreement allowing CSC to farm a half acre and use a greenhouse on the 50-acre campus. The Farm Home used to be a functioning dairy farm and agricultural campus when it was an orphanage. Currently, it has a therapeutic healing garden for the children but they no longer mass-produce food on campus. The CSC youth will grow organic food on the plot, and some of it will go to the Farm Home, some of it will go to the Linn-Benton Food Share, and the rest will be sold at market. The Farm Home will use the CSC Youth’s hard work and creativity to help feed 200 people each day.
The partnership makes sense in the age of budget cuts and reduced resources. The two groups share additional similarities—the youth in both programs can be misunderstood or cut-off from a stable community. Residents of the Farm Home will not necessarily be working in the garden, but the project provides a connection between the school, the CSC Youth, and the greater Corvallis community.
Mark Elledge of Children’s Farm Home noted, “We’re trying to provide an education and a healthy meal. One thing I have noticed is when kids grow things, they’re much more willing to try it.”
Schoppy agreed. He and Sharee Cooper were amused to find the students eating more broccoli than they were harvesting a few weeks ago in the garden.
The CSC Youth Garden is proud of its success rate. Because the program is small, academic outcomes are usually achieved. Student time in the garden is supplemented with lots of mentoring and support from staff to help students who often live in a state of flux gain stable ground. The garden project has enabled the students to find meaning in work and belong to a community that relies on them to provide quality food and knowledge.
There is an incredible connection between humans and our food. Tilling soil and tending to plants is certainly therapeutic. As CSC demonstrates, it is also a way to change students’ lives.
“It’s amazing how much they really care about the plants and things they started from seed. They really feel connected to the product,” said Schoppy.
At the next farmers’ market, stop by their booth and ask about their starts or organic methods or tomatoes with thorns. They’ve done their research and are ready to teach.