It’s a hot Friday afternoon in the middle of June, as we gather around a table in the open-air dining room of Grow Dat Youth Farm in City Park. The menu is full of dishes made from food grown all of 100 yards away (about as local as you could want it, outside of growing it yourself) and harvested by the young people we’re about to sit down with. It’s a resplendent meal, raw and vegan, rich with color and vibrancy. The young people talk about working on the farm.
“My teacher, she kept on saying I should apply for this job, so I did,” says one youth. “I never thought about where my food came from, or how it got to my plate,” says another. “And now I do.”
Grow Dat, in business for three years (one year as a pilot on a different site, and two years at the current farm site) at its enviable location near the golf course in City Park, is a flourishing example of giving positive experience to urban youth and turning a buck. The farm is gorgeous, with upcycled shipping containers for offices, work space, storage, and outdoor kitchen; there’s a bayou next door and ancient cypress and oak trees all around. Even with the noise of Interstate 610 over yonder, the birds, bugs, and laughing staff keep it all peaceful. This year, the youth added a farmer’s market to their activities. In addition to the Market Leader, a job held by a student who has been promoted to a supervisory level, Grow Dat is launching three new leadership development positions this fall: Farm Intern, Education & Outreach Intern, and Administrative Intern.
35 youth are recruited from five local high schools, hired to work for a year, and graduate from the program full of knowledge and experience that many people their age just don’t get. One of the young people at our mid-June table, who is a guest but not on staff at Grow Dat, claims that this is the first time he’s eaten broccoli in his entire life, and has no idea what that plate of leafy greens in front of him is called; it’s something he’s never even seen before. (It turns out to be kale.) He’s not planning to stop eating at McDonald’s any time soon. One of the young women employed at Grow Dat, however, said that in the past year, she’s stopped going to McD’s all together; she’s more conscious of her food choices now and teaches her family about it as well.
These kids turn out to be hilarious, kind, smart, and absolutely dedicated to each other, the farm, and the farm’s administrative staff. It’s a huge family- love is forged by hours of hard work in the sun, with dirt under fingernails and sweat running down faces and backs. It would seem so easy to take that air-conditioned job at the cash register in McD’s, but these youth don’t want that- they want something more, something bigger than themselves. They will give back: one of the former student employees now works on the administrative staff, giving back to kids only several years younger than he is.
A week after our mid-June lunch, we gather again to watch the youth graduate. Their parents, aunties, grandfathers, are madly snapping photos. The kids are laughing tremendously in the back- nary an argument, a threat, a loss of esteem of each other or themselves. One by one, the administrative staff read off their accomplishments (one youth didn’t receive the Grow Dat Perfect Attendance Award due to the day he missed when he was at his high school receiving a perfect attendance award) and give them diplomas, hugs, and framed photographs of them working the farm. It’s a heart-warming spectacle.
For more information about Grow Dat and their farmer’s market and student program, visit their website.