From Field to Able

dining_youthcrewThe Youth Crew at Food, What?! mixes farming-based curriculums with personal, business, community and networking skills

Since 1979 Santa Cruz’s nonprofit Life Lab organization has built a fine boutique of garden-based curriculums. Children around the country learn hands-on science in the fresh air of their school gardens. At the Garden Classroom at UC Santa Cruz, kids learn about nature, weather, and decomposition, while teacher-training classes offer graduate credits. And three years ago Food, What?! was born as a high school youth empowerment program.

Each fall and spring, students begin a 12-week internship on the UCSC farm employing organic and sustainable methods. They plant flowers and learn to grow and cook potatoes, vegetables, and even grain, which they harvest, thresh, winnow and grind into flour. In the summer program they work for a paycheck on their own farm as well as others such as Freewheelin’ Farm, sometimes making bicycle deliveries to CSA drop-offs. They also perform volunteer gardening at local schools.

At Life Lab’s 31st anniversary, GT spoke with Brandon McBride, a Junior Staff Member at Food, What?!

“Working in the soil and learning where your food comes from,” McBride said, “you get a sense of where man began, creating food instead of mass producing it.”

When asked if Food, What?! is a future farmers program, Director Doron Comerchero says it’s more about growing strong individuals. “Agriculture presents a really nice opportunity to learn skills in an empowering way.”

And the list of skills learned is long. Students set up a farm stand at Gault Elementary School with artistic flower bouquets, arranged an attractive array of vegetables, and handled the accounting. Their blog is a scrapbook of colorful photographs and commentary. From bicycle safety training, teambuilding workshops and resume-writing sessions, students garner lifetime competences.

At Life Lab’s anniversary dinner, one student summarized what she gained through participation in Food, What?!

“I didn’t really make the connection that through this program I was going to grow a lot more personal skills, and better skills interacting and communicating with other people.”

In 2008 Food, What?! hosted a day of the Rooted in Community Conference for the national organization that empowers young people to be involved in their communities. Youth Crew members led seminars for their peers, and they all made pizza. Some of the Crew followed the conference to Berkeley for more forums.

Last autumn 300 county teenagers descended on the farm for the annual Fall Harvest Festival. The guests stripped kernels from cobs and popped corn, peeled apples on a mini-lathe and pressed cider, fed goats and ate goat cheese.

But they also were invited to workshops that included such topics as “Trace-your-burrito: Where do those ingredients in your Taco Bell burrito come from, anyway?” and “Eat a Rainbow: Learn a little about nutrition and sample some tasty food.”

The Crew celebrates spring with a Strawberry Blast, also inviting county high schoolers to participate in making smoothies, some in a bicycle-powered blender, and tarts. But fast food jeopardy, the positive notion of fair-trade bananas and Food Justice philosophy, perhaps enabled their peers to view their food choices differently.

The Youth Crew held a major fundraising dinner in October, but it’s not too late to make a donation through lifelab.org/support.  Keep up  with Food, What?! at foodwhatblog.blogspot.com.

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