By Sean McSteen
Understanding successes of any kind within our lives requires looking back, to every thought had, and decision made that formed the unique path, which we have walked to get to where we are now.
I believe self-reflection and self-discovery go hand-in-hand, and I think it is important to occasionally stop and take stock in the journey that has led us to the present. Every thought, every decision and every action we have made that, in some way, have woven together to bring each of us to where we are now. For some, the options provided from an early age were endless. For others, the opportunities to explore, learn and grow were far more limited. But no matter where any of us may fall along that spectrum, there is no denying that, as individuals, who we are today has been directly influenced by the experiences and different possibilities we were given as children and young adults. Like a tree, our roots must grow before we can begin to reach for new levels; and when our roots are not given the space and opportunity to grow, we run the risk of being blown over when the next big storm comes. Becoming strong and tall takes patience, freedom and love; and when those all come together as one, we are able to understand and reach our true potential.
One such organization that has dedicated itself to the expansion and growth of young minds in Minnesota is Urban Roots. This non-profit organization works to employ, educate and train high school students ages 14 to 18 years old from low-income families on the East Side of St. Paul about sustainable agriculture, healthy food practices and business and communication skills. Working primarily through Right Track—a program in created by the St. Paul public school system designed to provide career training, opportunities and employment for young adults who come from low-income households—Urban Roots employs around 60 youth each year to work in one of three different programs that they offer: the Market Garden, Cook Fresh, and Conservation.
Each program has its own unique specification designed to teach students a particular side of the food world, while simultaneously working with the young adults to develop business and communication skills. The students employed by Urban Roots are also placed into different professional skills tracks, beginning with a base understanding of job skills, resume writing and financial literacy. Once students move through this first track, they continue on to the entrepreneur track, where they work together to create an entire business plan for an idea the group has collectively brainstormed and hashed-out; or the social justice track, in which youths work through a variety of outlets to learn about and support different social justice issues in today’s culture. The agricultural programs and the professional training tracks build off each other, and as Executive Director Lori Arnold explains, “These programs are like the vehicles on learning 21st century job skills…but [they] all address it in a little different way.”
There is the Market Garden Program, in which groups of students learn and work on every stage of the growing process; everything from planting, caring for and harvesting produce in Urban Roots’ five different gardens and farm spaces across the East Side of St. Paul. The organization produces over 11,000 pounds of produce each year that are fed into different business outlets Urban Roots has developed that work as another kind of teaching tool. Running a youth-managed 30-member CSA, selling produce at the Mill City Farmers Market and to restaurants around the Twin Cities, and working with different hunger relief efforts; student-workers employed by Urban Roots are given hands-on training and exposure to the intricacies of the business-side of food.
They also get to bring the fruits of their labor into their own lives and their family’s lives. “We send take-home bags of produce home with them,” says Arnold. “We’re trying to provide food access to a point where we’re not just going to teach you what to do with the food; we’re going to send it home with you and hopefully then you can work with your families on healthy-eating and cooking and just a whole lifestyle change.” So, the students are given the opportunity to learn the ins-and-outs of what it takes to produce healthy food and create a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their families. Furthermore, they are also simultaneously receiving education and training to develop and hone both interpersonal communication skills and business know-how.
The second track Urban Roots offers is the Cook Fresh Crew. This track teaches youths in the program how to take the food grown by the Market Garden program and transform it with other ingredients into a delicious, healthy meal. The roots of healthy living come from a basis of knowledge of how to implement healthy practices into routine; a healthy meal every once in a while is a good start, but encouraging consistent healthy eating is key. Using a combination of staff instructors and guest chefs from around the community, the Cook Fresh program is designed to give students the knowledge and skills to create healthy recipes to take home to their families. “The kids are so into it,” says Arnold. “And then the chefs get really into it because the kids are. So, it’s really contagious.”
Part of the framework for Urban Roots’ education and training model is the celebration of the diversity and different backgrounds of the each student, using both shared experiences and individual differences as an opportunity and tool to learn and grow from one another. As Senior Program Director Patsy Noble says, “They are learning about each other’s cultures; they are learning different ways to do things. So, it’s really about inspiring them and connecting them to opportunities.”
With these objectives in mind, Urban Roots has also begun working with youth-workers in the Cook Fresh program on a new way to bring the distance between work and home life closer together. As Arnold explains, the students, “Can bring in culturally specific recipes that their families use, and using the MyPlate standards from the USDA recommendations, they will look to see, ‘are these recipes healthy?’ And if not, how can we revamp them?” The Cook Fresh Crew also works with the different visiting chefs to cater fundraising events and create special lunches that youth-workers from all three programs enjoy together. In this way, Arnold says, “We are going to expose the youth then to hopefully a whole lot of different ethnic foods because of the diversity amongst our youth.”
The last program option for student-workers is the Conservation program, a track in which youths work with instructors to protect and strengthen natural areas around the East Side. This involves learning about the many plant species that are native to local parks and habitat in the region, and working to plant new seeds or work to bolster the resiliency of the current habitat. The other key element of the Conservation program is for the students to learn to identify invasive plant species, which are then removed to protect and preserve the native wildlife. Taking the idea of conservation to the next level, Urban Roots was able to work their non-profit magic (will-power and elbow grease) to find, fix and store their own fleet of bicycles that are used by the kids to travel to each work location. The other aim of the Conservation program is community outreach. Working with Park Rangers and city officials, the students in the program learn about the history of the land in St. Paul and even give park tours to the public.
Urban Roots is no summer camp. This non-profit is far from all play with no responsibilities. The work is hands-on; both physically and mentally engaging; and often quite dirty. As Noble puts it, “Everything is production-oriented here. So, while we are doing all this training, we also have all these responsibilities.” She continues, “You know, the restaurant is waiting for their cabbage delivery, and the CSA boxes have to be filled cause they’ve got to be picked up. So, the kids get the seriousness nature of work.”
Should they wish, student-workers have the opportunity to work with Urban Roots throughout their entire high school career, experiencing and learning from all three programs the organization has to offer. All while earning a paycheck. A paycheck that can help buy groceries for their family or even go towards rent. So, while the income is incredibly beneficial, and often needed for youth-workers and their families, the intangible skills that students who work for Urban Roots come away with are beyond priceless. They are given opportunity, inspiration and options. This engaging non-profit provides a safe, yet challenging place for its youths to feel prepared for the next step—whether that’s post-secondary education or a job—it’s a future full of possibility.