As interest grows in sustainable living and local foods, the demand for farmers will increase. Enter Debbie Weingarten (right) and Shanti Sellz (left), the youth education coordinator and the youth garden coordinator, respectively, at the Marana Heritage Farm's Youth Farm Project. Weingarten says that only 3 percent of U.S. farmers are younger than 35. She and Sellz would like to change that, and they hope their apprenticeship and internship programs can also teach kids about where our food comes from, and how to be leaders in their community. For more info, visit communityfoodbank.com, or call 873-7401.
How did the project start?
Debbie: I started at the Food Bank as an Ameri-Corps member at the farm. My position as youth coordinator was new, and the point was to create a youth program. Shanti was interning. We started off with a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention grant for $40,000 our first year, and we ran a pilot apprentice program. This year, we came on staff, and because of our success, we got a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for $300,000 for three years to continue this program.
Do you think the kids get a full farm experience?
Debbie: It's a young farm. We're in our third year. We're on 10 acres, but the youth farm is a third of an acre. It's really an outdoor classroom, with a chicken coop, a cook's garden, pollinators and a flower bed.
Shanti: Our curriculum allows the youth to get involved and experienced in all aspects of being on a farm. With the chickens, we're not producing eggs on a large scale, but they can learn how to take care of the chickens, and they spend time in the greenhouse starting plants from seeds. Of course, farming is different at each site. ... There are so many different ways to operate a farm.
Why is it important for us to teach young people about food?
Debbie: The rate of food-related illnesses has exploded with Type 2 diabetes and obesity. ... We encourage (young people) to try other food, shop locally and get away from processed food.
What are the youth responses to the farm?
Shanti: They were absolutely amazed, and it surpassed what we thought what was going to happen. ... In the evaluations we received, they (said they) felt a part of something. They've been able to see a seed they planted grow into a mature plant, and then they can take its vegetables home to their families to eat. They are very proud.
Is it a problem finding kids from Tucson who want to drive to Marana among the apprentices and crew leaders you are recruiting right now (ages 15 to 20)?
Debbie: Right now, our No. 1 problem is transportation. ... It's hard for kids who are close to downtown Tucson or even the eastside to get to us, but we're working on resources. We just don't have it available to us yet. But we've gotten quite a few youth from Marana.
What impresses you most about the kids who participate?
Shanti: In the summer, we were setting our program up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. To see those kids come on time every Saturday morning showed a level of commitment and enthusiasm that was so inspiring to me. Some of them told us that they felt that the program had given them so much. It showed me that there is a really natural relationship between us and the earth, and farming gives us a natural sense of purpose. Everybody deserves nutritional food, and giving a 16-year-old a sense of purpose says so much about how good this is for their continued development.
What do we know now that has created this interest in sustainable living, that we didn't realize years ago?
Shanti: The illnesses, like diabetes and obesity, are a huge part of it. But not that long ago, think back when smoking was finally (proven to be) related to cancer. With the extreme rate of food-related illnesses in this country, there is no denying it is directly linked to the processed food we are eating. And now, finally, that work is being done on the food level. People, if given the proper information, will become part of the local food movement in their community, if they are being given a choice. It's still a fringe movement, but I believe it is still engaging those who are underserved, and eventually, more people will want to participate.