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Grow2Grow - urban farming program teaches kids life skills and brings nature back into the city

A collaborative effort amongst government, local business, community and parents, Grow2Grow incorporates farming into public school vocational curricula, aiming to teach urban youth new skills while also bringing nature back into the civic landscape.

Photo of Stefanie Plant
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Problem: Urban decay is not limited to eroding social services, population, and physical structures in high-density areas, but also to an estrangement of urban denizens from nature. Much interpersonal friction and decline in the “shared, communal” feeling of urban communities can be attributed to the simple fact that too many people are squeezed together in a limited geographic area comprised almost exclusively of high-rise buildings.


As a result, in major metropolitan centers, many children grow up without having set foot on a patch of grass. The small parks they find squeezed between streets and buildings are a pale imitation of a natural world they discover only in books or on the Internet. Most public schools in the city do not even have grass carpeting their outdoor playgrounds, preferring asphalt sport courts or even rubber sheeting that is much easier to upkeep. And speaking of public schools and the food children get there and at home—well, many of them have never seen a full-sized carrot or peach, instead envisioning such fruits and vegetables as they come – diced, cubed, and/or processed – in fruit cups, coleslaw, and the like. Generations of children are thus growing up alienated from nature, unfamiliar even with the natural bounty they need for health.


Solution: Enter the Grow2Grow movement. Much more than the increasingly-common inclusion of school gardens or even church- or nonprofit-run community farms, Grow2Grow is a collaboration amongst the education sector, municipal government, local business, and community and nonprofit organizations including churches, unions, and the like. This urban farming movement creates microenterprise opportunities for youth in a disadvantaged community while teaching them professional and life skills.  Grow2Grow promotes healthy nutrition, supports local businesses and the “slow food” ecological movement, removes eyesore vacant lots and crumbling buildings by turning them into green spaces, and draws together members of a community to incubate and support the urban youth farm.


How it Works: 

Planning~

  • A municipal government donates an underutilized public property in an inner city to a school district, or else financially supports (through direct funding, or even a tax break or similar for the seller) the purchase of a piece of private land by a school district. 
  • Agricultural experts secured by the municipal government (perhaps professors from a state agricultural college) inspect the land and soil, make recommendations for what nutrients are needed, and lay out a plan for crop growth, rotation, and basic farm needs. 
  • Public school teachers chime in about how to craft a curriculum that melds farming/crop nurturing techniques, nutritional education, and basic business skills (supply/demand, customer service, etc.) in a way that will engage students. A new vocational track is created that bridges the school district’s K-12 classrooms and involves a lot of time outside at the urban farm.
  • Meanwhile, discussions have been ongoing with local restaurants and food-related businesses, especially those that like to source locally or are part of the “slow food” movement, about what types of produce they prefer, use seasonally, or tend to have to import from afar.


Building~

  • With some infrastructure donations from businesses in the community (gardening tools, seeds, trellises, topsoil, and similar), the physical infrastructure of the urban youth farm is built over the footprint of a reclaimed lot.
  • Students of all ages start learning the basics – how seedlings grow, what they need to prosper, what makes good soil fertile. Curriculum is tied as well to more traditional school curricula, e.g. charts of Mendel’s pea plant experiments are brought in and the high school biology teacher makes a visit to talk to students. The first crop starts emerging, and students are excited. They enjoy being outside in nature and getting their hands dirty.


Program Development~

  • Older students in high school are guided to start meeting with community members who have expressed interest in buying the students’ crops. Their teacher coaches them on customer service skills, contracts, etc., and soon enough they are delivering the fruits of their labors to restaurants and cafes they’ve passed on the street with their families or even eaten at. 
  • Some students decide they want to set up a booth at the local farmer’s market on the weekend. They start meeting direct consumers of their produce face-to-face. It’s kind of like the old corner lemonade stand, but with an actual consumer demand for the products. 
  • While many students are getting class credit for their work on the urban youth farm, some have made it an extracurricular as well, since they spend so much time there and are so involved with it.
  • Another new vocational class is begun at the middle and high schools, a cooking class using many ingredients being grown at the farm.


Long-Term Benefits/Replication~

  • A few inner-city kids about to graduate from high school decide they like farming so much they apply to the state agricultural college. Eventually the college will partner a lot more closely with the school district, sending some of its graduate students to guest lecture the public school students. It will also eventually endow a scholarship program for graduates of the Urban Youth Farming project. 
  • A lot of other students at the public school district don’t like farming that much, but their work at the urban farm looks good on their resumes so they decide they will apply to community college after all.
  • Eventually, the project scales up and another vacant lot is secured, expanding the farm’s capabilities. Another school district wants to start its own farm. 
  • Also, the PTA at the original school district has started a grassroots movement to have more fresh produce and healthier options integrated into school lunches, especially because members’ children have begun asking why some types of the food they grow never seem to make their way onto the menu…
  • Grow2Grow has become a successful, replicable program that not only teaches students life, health, and job skills, but also draws together a community and revitalizes a deadened urban environment by returning natural elements to the built landscape!

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Note: Check out http://www.chicagolights.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/cl.woa/wa/a?p=197 for an example of a successful urban farm located adjacent to Cabrini Green, the final public housing “project” in downtown Chicago to be torn down (last building in March 2011, now transitioned to mixed-income housing). However, its efforts have largely been spearheaded and supported by a community church and its school-related efforts are co-curricular rather than integrated into regular school programming, as they would be with Grow2Grow.

What resources (money, time, people, technology, etc) will your concept need to be successful?

Grow2Grow would require collaboration between government, public schools, students/families, and local businesses. Municipal governments would have to secure public land for the farms, or else provide grants for school districts to purchase land from private owners. While much physical infrastructure could be donated from local or even large national businesses (many companies have corporate social responsibility initiatives today, so maybe the Monsantos and Home Depots of the world would contribute), community contribution funds could be established to help defray additional costs. Once the first round of produce was sold, revenue could also be plowed back into the program for supplies, so Grow2Grow could become at least partially self-sustaining.

Agricultural experts and civil engineers would need to be consulted to ensure success of the farming and transition from urban to natural landscape. They could probably be sourced from a local university or agricultural college and a collaborative relationship could be forged wherein college students help out at the Grow2Grow farm and perhaps even use it as a venue for some crop research (using the curious public school students as lab assistants!). Public school teachers would also need to help design the curriculum, and would likely have to donate some of their time after-school as advisers.

Buy-in from local businesses would also need to be ensured, as it is likely that the cost of the local organic produce from the urban farm might be slightly higher than cheaper foreign produce bought in bulk (many restaurants now buy local anyway though since their customers prefer it). But if enough produce could be sold at a roadside stand or farmers’ markets, the “small business/restaurant” piece of the puzzle wouldn’t be so important.

Essentially, the hardest part of this idea involves the initial coordination of the disparate parties (government officials, educators, businesspeople, parents) who need to come to agreement on the intended benefits, limitations, and scope of the Grow2Grow educational program.

What steps could you take to implement this idea today?

Begin talking with public school administrators about their vocational curricula, and the availability of school ground to incubate gardens that might serve as the precursor to the Grow2Grow farm if an initial experiment were required. Scout our urban neighborhoods for vacant spaces or ones that might easily be reclaimed (or are simply “for sale”) that are near school buildings in relatively safe areas. Talk with local restaurants and businesses about their sourcing, costs, and willingness to pay for community-supported agricultural products. Email your mayor/governor about nutritional education at schools and willingness/flexibility to expand vocational curricula and try an experimental youth farming model that could become the basis for a revamping of urban education (sorely needed, in the US at least).

How can your idea be scaled so that it's implemented in cities around the world?

With recent advances in small-space high-yield farming, it makes it easy for such Grow2Grow farms to be implemented at various sizes in even very compact cities. Urban farms can even be made to thrive on rooftops of tall buildings. Once a successful prototype or two of the program has been run within a school district for several successful years, working out kinks in the process, a kind of “field manual” for initiating and integrating Grow2Grow into an educational system can be created. This field manual will be available online (in multiple languages) and can serve as a guide for getting such a program off the ground. There can even be separate advice sections for those coming at the program from an array of backgrounds – parents who think their schoolchildren would benefit from more time in the outdoors and from the responsibility of nurturing the plants, educators tired of a stale curriculum that doesn't teach necessary life skills, politicians grappling with issues of urban malaise and health problems in their constituencies, kids who actually eat their vegetables… all these individuals might be interested and become invested in and advocates for Grow2Grow in their communities. The manual could even be developed so far as to recommend initial quantities of each type of seed per square meter, although it could also be left more general to allow for regional agriculture experts to tailor items grown to particular climates.

While the Grow2Grow concept was conceived with developed-world cities like Detroit in mind, particularly in parts of the developing world where a large portion of the populace has recently relocated from rural farming areas and villages to cities (e.g. much of China), bringing farming into the urban setting will provide a sense of familiarity. I can even envision parents who were once farm laborers but now work in factories being able to mentor children and help set an example when they volunteer time at the farm.

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Photo of Sai Bhaskar Reddy

I like this concept of involving local students, community and other local stakeholders. The strategies shared here can be applied for my concept too http://www.openideo.com/open/vibrant-cities/concepting/grow-your-own-food-in-urban-areas/
Hope to see more such green initiatives in the urban areas as a reality. Best wishes and all the success for your concept.

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