Across rows of plant and grasses, in the midst of bright, skipping finches, three huddled pairs of teenagers are bent at the waist, up to their elbows in leafy green bean plants. They snap the beans from their stems and toss them into baskets.
But just beyond this pastoral scene are the golf courses of a country club. It’s hidden from the fields by a barrier of trees, but I-64 rumbles in the background. This thin strip of farm—green and buzzing with summer life—is inside the Louisville city limits.
These teenagers are learning to plant and cultivate as well as prepare, price, and sell the produce that surrounds them. For 30 hours a week, they work with their hands in the dirt for the Youth Community Agriculture Program. It’s hosted by the Food Literacy Project, a non-profit that introduces younger generations to healthy food, and helps them build a relationship with the land.
Food Literacy Project Assistant Director Angelique Perez says most of the program’s participants have never been on a farm. They’ve never harvested anything or eaten something right out of the ground. At first, they’re hesitant, but soon they dig in.
“I hear a lot like ‘gosh I can’t believe we can eat these leaves,’ or ‘potatoes grow under the ground,’ or ‘strawberries grow on plants!’ There is a lot of surprise, so that sense of discovery is happening,” she says.
When first arriving on the farm, program participants are given three challenges: to get their hands dirty, to try something new, and to show respect for something. This structure calms and encourages the often overwhelmed participants.
The Food Literacy Project has a variety of programs for a variety of needs. They host field trips for local schools as well as farm visits for entire families. They also have a professional development program for teachers to help them tackle topics like agriculture and healthy eating. But Perez says the Youth Community Agriculture Program is unique. By employing the participants for the entire summer, the teens are given time to explore their food system. They learn to grow, cook, and market fresh vegetables, all while beginning to understand the issues of hunger and food insecurity in Louisville.
Sixteen-year-old participant DeAndrae Hughes says he’s learned a lot.
“I’ve gained an understanding of farming, and what it takes to farm, and where our food comes from,” he says. “And having an understanding of that is just the best thing. It’s the best thing.”
That kind of growth is exactly what assistant director Angelique Perez is going for.
“The youth complete pre- and post- tests and one of the questions we ask them always is like ‘are you a part of your food system,’” she says. “And at the beginning of the program most of them say no. And by the end of it, I mean last year I remember one youth saying like ‘I learned through this program that the food system is what I make it,’ and that’s success, that you can make it better, that you can make a difference. It’s very powerful.”
Beyond the changes in the participants themselves, the produce they grow and sell makes a difference too. Perez says every year, the participants themselves decide what to do with their proceeds.
“Some years they’ve elected to split the cash and they’ve earned a little bit of extra money. In other years, they’ve decided to do kind of a legacy project, improvement in the garden, or something to help make this experience available for other youth in the years to come.”
But as with many non-profits, the future isn’t always a sure thing. The participants in the Youth Community Agriculture Program are paid for their work through the Mayor’s Summer Works program, but funding issues for the Food Literacy Project persist. A major funder pulled out soon before the start of this summer, forcing the program to cut their participants from 16 down to 6. Despite these setbacks, Perez says interest in field-to-fork programming is growing in Louisville.
As for the food, some of its donated to the food bank, and some sold to farmers markets. And some of it goes to programs like the Fresh Stop, which work to increase access to fresh food in some of Louisville’s food deserts.
Listen to the story: