By Ashley Klann
Bet you’d never guess that there’s an organic farm right in the middle of Main South. While at first glace, the area doesn’t seem conducive to raising a yard full of fresh vegetables, the Regional Environmental Council’s YouthGROW program has turned an empty lot into a budding oasis for both plants and youth.
Seventeen-year-old Christian LeBlanc tills a row of rich soil, prepping the area for squash. He and the other Youth Leaders are readying the lot on Oread Street for the rest of the eager youth that will arrive later in the afternoon. It’s his third year with YouthGROW and still going strong.
“I’ve never taken it for granted. I’ve always been really thankful for what it has done for me,” LeBlanc said. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great people – from the mayor to the kids on the street.”
YouthGROW is in its ninth year, and has seen significant expansion since it started. This summer, their plot of land will be churning out garlic, peas, beets, carrots, onions, cilantro, kale, collards, chard, lettuce and strawberries.
As busy hands tend to the garden, noise pollution grinds to a halt, and the rusty industrial park a few blocks over seems miles away. Blue skies roll overhead and a hillside of Worcester triple-deckers fills the skyline.
Monaye Leathres, 21, who graduated through the program, pauses to admire the landscape and their team’s hard work.
“It’s relaxing, and there’s a great view,” she said.
Her younger brother is staying busy on the other end of the lot.
“It’s a great thing to be able to see my family grow here, too,” Leathres said. “It’s helped me mature, be a better person, and stay out of trouble. And I’m able to show the kids what has helped me.”
Originally, YouthGROW was only a summer program with limited funding allocated through the state program, Youth Works. Years later, the organization has seen vast expansion and now offers more kids more opportunities, even in the years after high school.
It’s obvious that vegetables aren’t the only things growing on this farm on Oread Street. Casey Burns, the REC’s Food Justice Program Director, has committed seven years to YouthGROW and has enjoyed seeing the fruits of their labor.
“It’s organically grown throughout the years, and we use the kids’ input to tweak it and make it applicable to the needs in Worcester,” Burns said. “Community members, volunteers, and Clarkies all made it possible.”
“It’s changed a lot over the years,” she said. “When it first started, we modeled it after the Food Project in Boston. The founders wanted to bring that to Worcester.”
Originally, the organization was not able to give the youth wages, but by the third year, growth afforded them the opportunity.
The program has also greatly benefited the space and the neighborhood.
“Before it became a farm site, the plot on Oread was the site of an Earth Day clean up for several years. It was a big, cohesive effort,” said Grace Duffy, an Education & Youth Development Mass Promise Fellow. “Planting reduced the likelihood of dumping. It wasn’t just regular littering either. People find the worst looking places to put their junk.”
YouthGROW doesn’t stop at the farm. The organization works to motivate youth outside their area, taking them to regional discussions about sustainability and food and water issues.
“It helps to enforce the teaching elements. The youth get to teach it back and tell our story. In turn we also get to hear other peoples’ stories,” Burns said. “It’s encouraging to see other regional youth. It doesn’t feel isolated to just Worcester.”
“We visit other organizations so youth can see and get a greater sense of community,” she said.
YouthGROW has traveled to Providence, Lowell, and collaborated with other groups like Grow Hartford.
“We also do natural networking through block parties and activities,”Burns said. The organization has also done fund raising to go to Rooted in Community in Philadelphia. Youth have also been accepted to present at the Community Food Security Coalition Conference in Oakland.
“We’re now working on curriculum components,” she said. With the new season has come increased age range and number of participant. They’ve also added a more project-based structure, making YouthGROW wider than the Food Project.
YouthGROW is also on its way to selling its own hot sauce. The group already sells their produce at the Main South Farmers’ Market on Saturdays in the summer. Soon, their Drop It Like It’s Hot Sauce will also be up for grabs.
“Hot sauce it pretty cross-cultural. It has a long shelf life, and we can grow all the ingredients except vinegar and lime,” Burns said.
The youth have visited cooperative businesses, had taste tests, and have been learning the ropes of food safety laws. Good feedback followed the 30 test bottles made for donation at annual meeting and in January they got a grant from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation – the Youth For Community Improvement grant, in which the youth from the community decide who gets the $3,000 mini-grant. The money will go toward a commercial kitchen, and the group’s hot sauce should be at the farmers’ market by late August.
“We want to have these things in combination – cooking classes, farming, teaching, learning, and the farmers’ market,” Burns said.
With all of this organization, what’s been the most difficult part of the job? Weeding through the 100-plus applications.
“This year was totally heartbreaking,” Burns said. “We try to base our acceptance on two requirements. We ask whether or not this will be a major difference for them and make sure they’re enthusiastic. We still had to eliminate two-thirds of those who filled those criteria.”
“If they live right around the farm, it’s also a plus. We like to have brothers and sisters. It makes for more of an impact,” she added. “There are a number of families in the program.”
While a lot of youth in area are working fast food, YouthGROW is vying for the chance to give local kids a steady summer job. Both of these potentials deal with food, but they couldn’t be more black and white.
McDonald’s isn’t going to teach its employees the benefits of organic, sustainable agriculture or the importance of nutritional food. Burns hopes that their organization will spread these ideas through the community.
“In talking about farming, it inevitably leads to a discussion about health and nutrition. We have to ask ourselves why we are in this age and not everyone is familiar with these issues,” she said. “Food gives us a way to talk about all of those issues.”
Kids involved in the program are also getting a wealth of practice for the real world.
“We do interviews for all kids who apply as a coaching process,” Burns said. “We give them tips and try to make it feel like a real-life job experience. We try to set them up for success.” As youth return and rise in rank and responsibility, YouthGROW introduces them to important things like résumés and cover letters.
For Duffy, who was new to her position as of last fall, YouthGROW has been personally fulfilling.
“It’s been really great. I’m from Main South, on Mason Street. When I was looking to come back to this area after school, working in this community was really exciting,” she said. “It helps in developing relationships with the youth. I’m a white, female, college graduate. Yes, I am all those things, but I’m also from this neighborhood.”
“This spring was an eye-opener for me,” Duffy said. She’s seen the program grow immensely. Kids bring friends and family, and have come to discussions about water and food safety and security. “They’re definitely interested.”
YouthGROW provides a safe, community-based outlet for local kids to learn about food justice, sustainability, and nutrition in an area that was before plagued with litter. Burns and Duffy only expect the program to continue expanding, and hope to provide an enjoyable and education experience for all involved.