Teens Plant, Grow, Learn and Share the Wealth
When you grow vegetables, the cycle that runs from seed to plant to harvest to kitchen table offers opportunities to gain some personal growth as well. That's part of the theory behind the "Growing Connection," a summer program of the Binghamton Housing Authority (BHA) that turns at-risk teens into urban gardeners and entrepreneurs.
In 2010, a $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation helped the BHA to expand the Growing Connection well established in the North Shore Towers complex to two other housing communities, Carlisle and Saratoga. That opened the program to 30 additional teens.
Using self-contained planting units called Earth Boxes, participants in the Growing Connection raised eggplants, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, cucumbers and summer squash, among other crops. Along the way, they got lessons in agriculture, cooking and nutrition.
Take Swiss chard, a vegetable that many of the kids had never heard of before last summer. "They learned all about this plantwhat it looks like as a seedling, when and how to harvest it, what kind of pests are going to bother it," says Beth Harrington, program director at Broome County Gang Prevention, which runs the Growing Connection for the BHA.
When the crops were ready to harvest, staff from Cornell Cooperative Extension provided cooking demonstrations and taste tests.
The Growing Connection also includes a curriculum called Work Plus, developed by Cornell University, which teaches participants about business and job hunting. "Throughout the program they learn customer service skills, marketing, how to get along with your boss, how to work as a team," Harrington says.
The teens put those skills to work to conduct a weekly farmer's market, giving the senior citizens in North Shore Towers and the families in Carlisle and Saratoga a chance to buy fresh produce at affordable prices. The cash they earned helped to finance a celebration dinner hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension, where staff transformed some of the harvest into appetizers, entrees and desserts.
Based on the hours they devoted to the Growing Connection and the quality of their participation, teens in the program earned gift cards from the Oakdale Mall, earmarked for the purchase of clothing and supplies for the new school year.
For all they gained from the Growing Connection, the teens also gave a great deal back. Along with providing access to urban vegetables, their gardens beautified the apartment complex grounds and inspired pride, Harrington says. Also, the teens shared the knowledge they gained with their families. "It's a very holistic kind of benefit to all of the community."