"It seems that more and more students are deciding that this is cool—that being on a farm is a really cool way to spend your summer."

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Eliza Fournier, garden manager. [Photograph: Green Youth Farm]

During my summers off, I went to various camps until I realized that "internship" looked better on a college application. I really, really wish I had been able to go to the Chicago Botanical Garden's Green Youth Farm program instead!

This novel program takes more than 60 high school students and teaches them the skills of operating and growing crops on a small farm. They learn team-building skills, participate in community service projects, and get to eat lots of tasty, tasty fresh produce. I spoke with Eliza Fournier, Manager of Community Gardening, to get a better sense of why and how this organization makes such a big impact on its community.

Where did the inspiration for the Green Youth Program come from?

We really based a lot of our programs off of The Food Project in Boston. What we found was that a lot of the focus for funding was moving towards work readiness and job skills training, so we kind of coupled the ideas of the Food Project with where the funding was coming from. We shifted our focus to building urban farms, and began to put a lot of resources into that aspect of the program.

How has the program expanded and changed since it initially started?

In our first year, we had 13 teenagers and one staff person. Now we have four sites, over 65 youth, ages 13 to 18, and 17 staff people ranging from seasonal to full-time positions. We now have more structure to our day, week, month, and program year. We have also expanded to include an adult program, the Windy City Harvest Program, which addresses the demand for more green jobs training. And we've really learned a lot from our staff and students, and from visiting other programs.

Which particular aspects of the program do you think the students find most rewarding?

I think that we think that they respond to the social and youth development aspect. But they will always tell us that their favorite part is working in the garden and learning how to handle the plants. They also love the field trips, and we are really aware of trying to make these field trips relevant and meaningful.

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Two students hold a "before" picture of their now beautiful and cultivated farm site. [Photograph: Green Youth Farm]

What kinds of services do students provide in the community service aspect of the program?

Mostly we're providing food and educational opportunities for the community. We work in real partnership with the WIC program, so we do nutrition education, cooking demonstrations for the parents, and provide food at really reduced costs. Also, there are tours of our farms and we bring in groups throughout the summer so we can show them what we do.

How do you hope students will utilize the garden knowledge they acquire?

Since we're a youth development program, we don't measure success by how many of our students become farmers. We measure our success by how much more awareness of sustainable food systems our students are gaining. Do they know what grows on a plant? Can they articulate the work that they did over the summer? They learn how to show up on time, be prepared, show respect for their supervisors—the soft skills. Do they have an awareness of the food they're putting into their body, do they know how to read a nutrition label? These are the kinds of tools we provide them with.

Any final words for our readers?

We're just really happy that we've been able to sustain our program. This will be our eighth growing season, and we're really proud of that. And, we've had much higher numbers of applications from students across the city. It seems that more and more students are deciding that this is cool—that being on a farm is a really cool way to spend your summer.

I agree! To learn more about the Green Youth Farm program, visit their website or check out the Chicago Botanic Gardens for more info.

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