When we at Plant The Seed Project decide to build our garden classrooms, we set out to accomplish a few goals. Of course, we want to introduce youth (especially those who may not otherwise have the opportunity) to the process of growing and eating their own wholesome vegetables. We take serious pride in these introductions. I vividly remember one such moment. I was leading a volunteer group of at-risk youth in a gardening exercise for our fiscal sponsor Jovial Concepts. When we first explained that we would be harvesting heirloom yellow pear tomatoes, we were met with a few groans and even an explicit "I don't eat tomatoes." However we encouraged them to snack as they picked, as these are a favorite among staff. A short while later, the same youth who proclaimed loudly that he did not eat tomatoes was not only snacking on them, but making remarks to others about how good they were. That kind of change in attitude can only come from first-hand experience and involvement.
Beyond introducing youth to better food, there is also the irrefutable desire to create a safe space where these youth feel they can be respected, and better yet celebrated for whom they are as individuals. From the minute these youth enter a greenhouse, classroom or garden with us, it is our job to make them feel valued for providing us with their time and energy. Even on the days when they do not want to participate for whatever reasons, it behooves us to offer any and all support that we can provide.
But what is most important is the fact that we involve these youth in our food system and give them the sense that they can be active participants in our society. With every tomato that these students plant, nurture, harvest, and then transport to their school cafeteria we are not only simultaneously improving their health, physically and mentally, but empowering them to take a stand in their community. We want our students to know that they can provide for themselves, their family, and their peers. We use gardens and greenhouses to grow food surely. But when you put them on a school's grounds, you can help to cultivate not only fruits and vegetables, but also curiosity and a healthy lifestyle. Involvement is Empowerment.