November 30, 2016

For Some Athens Students, Farming Beats Fast Food

The Locavore

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

CCSD Culinary Arts Director Emmanuel Stone helps Clarke Central High School student Dontae Meadows stir-fry vegetables at the Athens Community Career Academy.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon at the Athens Community Career Academy, John Anderson is looking for a hairnet to stretch over his shaggy, brown hair. It’s cooking day for Anderson and 16 fellow members of the Young Urban Farmers program, and they have a full menu to get through.

If you’re familiar with the YUF program, then this scene may seem out of place. These students are regular fixtures working in the community garden at the old West Broad School, where the Athens Land Trust runs a Saturday farmers market. The name of the program itself conjures images of youth, dirt and large swaths of land. The YUF program goes beyond the garden, though, says program coordinator Seth Nivens. Yes, one of goals of the program is to bridge the knowledge gap between generations about growing food, but more broadly, Nivens says, YUF aims to “engage high school students in positive activities in their community.”

YUF is one of several community-based programs organized by the Athens Land Trust. Each school year, the program takes 15–20 students from high schools around Clarke County. Students meet almost every day. On Mondays, they gather for a workshop on nonviolent communication; Tuesdays, they are in the kitchen; Wednesdays are garden work days; and on Thursdays, students dive into entrepreneur training. Needless to say, the traditional image of “farmer” has expanded a bit.  

Manny Stone directs Tuesday’s cooking activities. Stone is the culinary arts director for the Clarke County School District, and the foods he and the young farmers create often make their way to the lunchroom at the Career Academy. On today’s menu: peanut butter and dried fruit bars, hummus and soup.

“My approach to the culinary arts in general has been life-skills oriented as well as lifelong-nutrition oriented,” says Stone. Blenders whir in the background as students get started on a classic chickpea hummus.

Stone says most of the young farmers walk into the kitchen with little to no cooking experience. “There’s a lot of microwaving going on,” he says. Over the course of the school year, the young farmers will experience the full circle of food. They grow it, harvest it and cook it on a weekly basis.

Anderson says the program opened his eyes to a vegetable he’d once placed in a firm “no” column. “I love eggplant now,” he says. “I wasn’t really willing to try it before. I probably eat an eggplant a week now.” His favorite preparation method is roasting it with olive oil and garlic. “It’s simple, but it’s really good.”

Nivens says cooking with the students is one of the most empowering parts of the program. “They really enjoy cooking, and they really leave with a sense of accomplishment,” he says. “Knowing how to feed yourself is pretty huge.”

To Anderson, the impact of the YUF program is bigger than himself. “It’s great coming here and seeing what it does for our community, what we’re doing,” he says. Tending the market garden each week supplies his community with fresh foods and vegetables they may not have been able to access otherwise. “It’s a small part,” he says, “but it has a big impact. “

At the beginning of the school year, there was some fear that the YUF program might have to downsize. Administrators and school board members zeroed out the budget line item that paid the students’ wages, opting to spend the money on a business mentorship program instead.

The ALT raised funds to keep the program going through a fundraising website and a couple of grants. The Great Promise Partnership—which replaced Young Urban Farmers in the CCSD budget—is funding three students’ wages this cycle. Nivens and Stone feel confident that one way or another, the program will find a way to continue because the community values it.

“It’s such a unique program,” Nivens says. “We’re reinvesting in our local community by investing in these kids.”

Anderson found more than an after-school job at YUF. He found friends, mentors and a purpose. “It’s not working in the back of the McDonald’s, you know? It’s working and getting experience, and it’s fun,” he says. “I go home happier everyday after work.”