grow and give back
Urban Roots yields crop of engaged youth and community-wide benefits
When you ask Outreach Coordinator Shirene Garcia about Urban Roots' decision to become its own organization, she sounds busy but excited. There is a lot to do — they're still unpacking their new office space at Center 61 while helping to organize Eat Drink Local Week, managing their core youth programs, conducting their annual appeal and managing a farm that grows 30,000 pounds of produce a year. Urban Roots was originally a program of YouthLaunch, an Austin nonprofit that recently had to close its doors, but as Garcia explains, “Urban Roots has developed such strong community support... that we basically decided that we need to launch ourselves into our own nonprofit.” It makes sense that Garcia and her staff would be so dedicated to a great cause that's so much fun with work with, too.
Their core youth program, which recruits from Austin area high schools, employs 24 high-school-aged interns each spring and summer to work on their 3.5-acre farm in east Austin. They spend their mornings working and their afternoons taking professional development workshops based on Urban Roots' four pillars: Food Justice, Life and Job Skills, Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Lifestyles. They might learn how to prepare a meal from the produce they've grown and then serve it to the homeless at Caritas. Or they might learn all the steps in preparing a healthy lunch, including how to pick out affordable ingredients and understand nutritional benefits.
They also donate 40% of what they grow to local hunger relief organizations, which amounted to 12,000 pounds of produce this past year. Young people emerge from the program with knowledge about composting, insects, farming, nutrition, food access, cooking and more, and they've gained the public speaking skills needed to educate other young people and adults about what they've learned.
Once a farm intern has completed the first year, she's welcome to apply for a Graduate Internship as an Assistant Crew Leader, Agriculture Intern, Farmers Market Intern or Community Educator. In this way, young people can move up in the program, gaining more experience and taking on leadership roles. The staff at Urban Roots encourages young people to have a sense of ownership and responsibility both for the program and for their own actions while participating. Regular “Real Talk” sessions occur, in which staff gives the youth feedback on everything from their farm work to their interactions with the rest of the team. At certain points in the year, youth offer “Real Talk” to staff as well, and this environment of honesty and forthright communication builds a strong team that listens to and respects each other.
Garcia recalls when the Urban Roots crew refurbished a school garden in the middle of July one summer. “We had just finished and the garden obviously hadn't been watered for a while. The teacher showed up and said, 'This is so amazing! You did so much!' and he brought out his sprinkler and started watering the plants in the middle of the day. In the program, we talk about how water's a valuable resource so you don't water in the middle of the day and when you use a sprinkler a lot of that water evaporates. All the youth were like, 'Oh my god, Shirene! He shouldn't be doing that!' They start noticing these things. They start internalizing how to take care of the land and how to eat healthier. They're making small changes and at least the knowledge is there. It's not like they're never going to eat Cheetos again but they've got more knowledge about it."
To learn more about Urban Roots' transition and how you can get involved with their volunteer days on the farm, check out their website. You can also go here to see which restaurants are participating in Eat Drink Local Week.