Farm Fresh Perspectives: Good food nourishing the minds of youth

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114668166727032.jpg’, ‘Photo provided’, ‘Roots & Wings youth gardeners from the Salvation Army celebrate the beginning of their gardening season.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114668173026322.jpg’, ‘Photo provided’, ‘William and James from Friends House get friendly with the chickens at the CSA Learning Center at Angelic Organics farm.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114668177928927.jpg’, ‘Photo provided’, ‘Roots & Wings youth gardeners celebrate planting early spring crops at Concord Commons.’);

I bet you have heard the story about the schoolchildren who, when asked by their teacher where their food comes from, enthusiastically respond, “from the grocery store!” This is worrisome to many, but have you stopped to think how your kids might answer that question?

You may understand the ins and outs of agricultural production and the complexities of the food supply chain, but we cannot forget to instill our food knowledge and food values into the young minds that look to us for guidance.

With the occurrence of childhood obesity, and other forms of malnutrition, reaching near epidemic proportions, it is clear we are not effectively teaching our youth about food.

And what about urban children who are distanced from food production by many miles and several generations? How are they ever to become healthy adults and conscientious consumers?

Well, someone has decided to do something about it.

The Roots & Wings youth gardening program started in 2002 as a collaborative effort between staff of Angelic Organics’ CSA Learning Center in Caledonia, and the Northwest Community Center in Rockford. It was begun as a youth development tool that would allow kids from at-risk and underserved populations to get some exposure to gardening and food production, as well as to gain an understanding of related environmental and nutrition issues.

Kids who participate in Roots & Wings learn about soil structure, insects and worms, weed control, plant anatomy, and the beginnings of how the food choices they make can affect their health.

Veteran Roots & Wings kids have the opportunity to become Youth Leaders who work closely with the coordinators, thus learning how to share their experiences with their younger peers and helping the adult volunteers manage the large groups of children.

I have been volunteering with a group of kids at Concord Commons, a housing complex off West State and Elm in Rockford. The group was organized by Deb Crockett, agroecology educator at the CSA Learning Center, and Julie Getter, president of the Concord Commons Residential Council.

So far this season, we have helped the kids at Concord Commons learn about garden preparation, bed layout, seed germination, amending soils with compost, and starting cool-season vegetables from transplants.

Soon, we will begin a worm farm to teach the kids about vermicomposting and the ways these critters can recycle household scraps into garden fertilizer.

It may seem in many of our minds that at-risk youth are hard to reach, but once the relationship is initiated, I have found they are very excited to forge a real bond. The kids are enthusiastic, energetic, curious and generally appreciative for what we are doing.

Having grown up on a farm in a rural area, I had to overcome my own nervousness about working with urban populations whose lifestyle and upbringing were very different from mine. Now, however, I look forward to hearing them yell “Mr. Andy!” when I arrive and diligently work the soil with tools much bigger than they. In all honesty, I think it is the privileged folks who have to be more willing to connect with these kids, because they are more than happy to be reached.

With aid from public and private donors, continuing interest from community members, and the helping hands of some Master Gardener volunteers, Roots & Wings continues to grow and currently includes four sites: the Salvation Army Kilburn Community Center, Friends’ House, Concord Commons, and the original Northwest Community Center site.

Friday, May 5, Roots & Wings will break ground at a fifth location, the Fairgrounds Valley Housing Complex. These kids saw what was going on at the other sites, and worked together to secure a grant from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois to finance the project. Not only will they be breaking ground, though; they will be turning, moving and shaping it into garden beds that will allow these young residents the same kinds of hands-on learning opportunities as their peers in other parts of town.

If you would like to help with this event, or the Roots & Wings program in general, get in touch with Deb Crockett at 389-8455 or

If we really want the concern for good food and environmental stewardship to become a lasting part of our culture, we need to impress the importance of growing right and eating right on our youth, especially those urban youth who need these learning opportunities more than anyone. After all, the concern with agricultural and ecological sustainability is not just about us; it is about having a favorable biological and socio-cultural situation for our next generation to be able to live, eat and farm just as we do.

If you are an advocate of eating fresh, local or organic food, be sure to share these values with your children and those to whom you are a role model. Introduce them to farmers, the real source of our sustenance, and teach them to grow food themselves.

The inherent splendor in the progression from seed to supper table is a great tool for teaching kids the value of hard work, an appreciation for what they eat, and a real responsibility for the living things with which they share the world. It is the only way they will begin to truly understand all of the hard work and natural marvels represented in the food that sustains us.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the May 3-9, 2006, issue

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