Today’s youth are tomorrow’s change agents, and ultimately the leaders who will innovate on food-energy-water (FEW) issues for a healthy earth and healthy communities. Interdisciplinary collaboration and problem solving on FEW issues must be mirrored in formal and informal education, and inclusive of traditionally under-represented youth, educators and communities in order to use their unique experiences and insights.
Growing North Minneapolis is a community-driven program which aims to build food, environmental, social and cognitive justice through sustainable urban growing and greening. Learning and career development are experiential and contextualized in real-world experiences related to the FEW nexus. Urban youth, predominantly of color and low socioeconomic status, are hired through a local workforce development program, and work together with UMN undergraduates and North Minneapolis community mentors to form intergenerational communities of practice.
The program has two primary components 1.) Community members work with science teachers at North High School to bring agriculture, food and natural resources curriculum directly into the classroom and 2.) Step-Up youth work together with community mentors and UMN undergraduate students to care for Northside community gardens where they grow food to distribute throughout the community and sell to markets.
During the 2019-2020 school year, 35 North High students took part in the program, which led to the creation of a hydroponic system and that produced 30 bins of leafy greens and lettuce for the school cafeteria. Along with UMN student and Master Gardener volunteers, the student team also worked over 100 hours to design a medicinal, healing garden for the school’s courtyard.
As for the summer internship program, Growing North Minneapolis supported 10 Step-Up youth interns, nine North Leader interns, six undergraduate interns and eight community mentors in urban agriculture and environmental internships. Over the 2020 summer season, they cared for 17 community garden sites and attended farmers markets weekly. Their efforts yielded over 1,200 pounds of fresh produce, half of which went to the farmers markets. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the team sold over 250 pieces of produce with sales totaling over $600. The other half (600 pounds) went to program meals, participants, local community members and local food shelves.
Qualitative data showed additional positive effects of the internship experience across participants. Thematic analyses revealed youth growth in the areas of self-direction, leadership, persistence and collaboration/teamwork skills. All youth reported growth in their work ethic, felt better prepared for a future job and showed appreciation for a more hands-on approach than in their previous school learning experiences. They especially enjoyed doing work that contributed to their community and beyond. Undergraduate intern mentors reported growth in the areas of youth work, community work and urban agriculture work. All mentors particularly elaborated on their growth in the area of working across differences, in which they hadn’t had many opportunities to do so prior.
Communities of color and low-socioeconomic status are disproportionately impacted by food, energy and water insecurity, but these communities have been historically left out of environmental movements and policy-making. Community-based education programs are a valuable tool to reach under-represented youth because it contextualizes learning by addressing real-world issues in socioculturally relevant ways. The Growing North project engages multicultural students in North Minneapolis who gain valuable employment skills and learn about agriculture, food, and food systems in hands-on and experiential ways that benefit their community.