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Can Organic Farming Turn Around At-Risk Teens?

by Radha Marcum

When you think Boulder, Colorado, a montage of mountain scenery, high-end local-food eateries, and families biking together to twice-weekly farmers’ markets might come to mind. It probably doesn’t evoke images of trailer parks, processed foods, or difficulty finding entry-level jobs. But both paradigms coexist in this community that prizes itself on progressive solutions to sustainability.

Closing the gap between these two realities is exactly what Boulder County’s largest urban agriculture nonprofit, Growing Gardens, aims to do through its Cultiva Youth Project. Started fifteen years ago, Cultiva isn’t just another organic farm experience for youth. It isn’t a summer camp. Participants ages 12 to 19 are in fact employed by the project and are responsible for running the organic farm, serving between fifty and sixty-five families through its CSA (community supported agriculture) program each summer.

“It’s really hard to find youth employment in Boulder, especially since the recession,” says Christopher Kiley, age 18, who is serving as a Youth Leader for his fourth season with Cultiva. “Teens are often disregarded, not taken seriously. This program stands against that paradigm. Cultiva has given me a job and confidence that I can lead.”

Modeled after the renowned Food Project in Boston, Massachusetts, Cultiva was started in partnership with the Family Learning Center in the San Juan del Centro neighborhood of Boulder. It was designed to provide leadership training, education in healthy eating, and job skills to the low-income teens in that vicinity.

Cultiva now operates on Growing Gardens’ central location, an 11-acre property less than a mile from downtown Boulder, also home to Growing Gardens’ 400-square-foot greenhouse, the Children’s Peace Garden, and community garden plots. About half of the teens in the program still come from low-income households.

“We look for kids who need the experience, who can’t afford to go to a camp, or who would benefit from the program for social issues,” Cassy Bohnet, Cultiva’s current program coordinator, tells Calmful Living. “For example, they may be exceptionally shy or place somewhere on the autism spectrum.”

“Agriculture is becoming a lost art,” points out Kiley. “Less than 2 percent of the US population works in agriculture.Cultiva teaches us how to farm. It’s an intense experience with all kinds of plants—fruit, root, and leaf crops. We learn not just how to grow but how to harvest and sell these foods. It’s vital,” he says. “We need to help our community choose fresh foods, not simply what you can buy in a package.”

Each week, participants take home bunches of fresh organic greens and vegetables that they have learned to cook through classes with local chefs (in partnership with the Boulder County Slow Food chapter) to enjoy with their families. “I used to think eating healthy was a burden,” relates Katrina Lews, age 16, whose mother is type 1 diabetic and has always focused on healthy eating. “Now I don’t see it that way. It tastes better and is better for you. I’ve even given up eating junk food when I’m on vacation, because I know that I’ll feel horrible later.”

About fifty Cultiva participants work in the fields two days per week throughout the summer and every Wednesday evening during the CSA pickups. There are also several Boulder Farmers’ Market “gleaning” shifts—in which Cultiva participants collect leftover produce from various farms for distribution to elder or low-income community members who wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy local organic produce. They donate over 10,000 pounds of food annually.

“Cultiva has shown me that I don’t just want to belong to a community; I want to improve the community,” Kiley continues. “Cultiva has given me the courage and the empowerment not only to lead in the program but to tackle some of the tough social issues that we face.” Thanks to his experience with Cultiva, Kiley has joined a handful of other nonprofits devoted to teen sexuality issues and has earned his certification as a rape crisis counselor, he adds.

Over the past decade and a half, more than 750 young adults have worked in Cultiva. Many participants have gone on to study agriculture, social work or business in college. Each participant benefits in a unique way, says Bohnet, but all experience community in a new way—as vital to physical and mental health as good nutrition. It’s a model that communities throughout Colorado and neighboring states are looking to replicate with Growing Gardens’ guidance.

“This program brings so many people together,” concludes Lews. “By working with teens that I might not interact with otherwise, and meeting so many people who pick up CSA shares every week, I see community from a new perspective.”

Learn more about Cultiva Youth Project and other Growing Gardens’ urban agriculture programs at