CEDAR RAPIDS — Harvesting zucchini is Ali Juma’s favorite gardening activity. He likes hunting through the plant’s bountiful leaves, searching for the long green vegetables.
“I’m someone who likes to find the big things,” he said.
He also likes learning and uncovering new discoveries, like the potatoes he was pulling from the dirt Wednesday during the Cultivate Hope Youth Development Program at the Cedar Rapids nonprofit Matthew 25’s Urban Farm.
“Harvesting potatoes is a lot of fun. The first time, it was hard for me to know what to do. Now, it’s kind of easy, because I learned everything,” he said. “The more my knowledge keeps going up, my mind keeps going up.”
Juma, 16, is a junior at Kennedy High School and one of 15 high school students who spent six and a half weeks of their summer at the farm learning gardening skills, along with building a sense of community. The program wrapped up Thursday.
“We all have different characters out here and different opinions, we all came from different schools, we didn’t know each other,” he said. “But I learned how to communicate with people as we have been working together.”
Along with learning about farming, the students participated in workshops around social justice issues and completed self-directed projects. Each Thursday, they left the farm for service projects and to learn about different area organizations. Those outings have included sorting produce donations at HACAP’s food reservoir, working in the garden at the North Liberty food pantry and setting up mushroom logs at Indian Creek Nature Center’s Sugar Grove Farm.
Now in its second summer, the program is based on the Food Project in Boston, which has a similar ethos, though on a much larger scale.
“We see this as really a job training opportunity,” said Tess Romanski, Matthew 25 youth education coordinator. “We see it as a really good way to introduce them into the workplace while getting to do farm work. We’re also really focused on bringing a diverse group of students together. It’s a place they get to meet and learn from each other. School is great, but a lot of times kids can get siloed into their groups.”
Unlike many traditional summer learning experiences for youth, which might cost a large amount of money to attend, students are paid $8.25 an hour for the 20 hours per week they spend in the program. Romanski said that encourages students to take ownership and responsibility for their work on the farm, and it allows a broader range of students to participate. They emphasize pulling students from all of the area’s high schools and from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Jabrianna Coleman, 17, a senior at Linn-Mar, said she has connected with students she doesn’t normally interact with at school. She got interested in farming while participating in the Iowa BIG school, where she heard gardening and local food advocate Scott Koepeke say gardening — growing and caring for something — could change someone’s mind-set.
“I wanted to see that for myself,” she said. “We have to see the bigger picture and give back to our earth, because it’s giving to us every day.”
Working in the garden, “I’m more positive on my outlook and happy,” she said. “I think we were meant to be outdoors.”
Juma said learning to garden was important to him because it connects him with his history and heritage; his family is from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I used to do a lot of farming. It’s a part of the lifestyle there. People didn’t buy food in the market, they got it from the farm,” he said. “My parents farmed, and they were excited about this, because it reminds them of their childhood.”
Three of last year’s students returned this year in leadership roles, including Cooper Towns, 16, a junior at Jefferson High School.
“I’ve learned patience, patience, patience, with other people and with myself,” he said. “It’s experience and knowledge you can pass on.”
Matthew 25’s Urban Farm constitutes eight plots, with about two acres total. The nonprofit, which focuses on community revitalization in neighborhoods hard hit by the Flood of 2008, started the urban farm effort in 2012 on land where houses inundated by floodwater once stood. They rent out some of the land as community garden plots; the rest is used as a demonstration garden and to grow fresh produce to sell or give away.
Students in the program take turns working at the Cultivate Hope Market, 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, 437 G Ave. NW. Produce at the market stand is half price for income-qualified people, and the market accepts SNAP. Any surplus is donated to area shelters and food pantries.
“The farm is really focused on revitalizing this neighborhood and providing affordable, healthy produce that isn’t necessarily available for everyone,” Romanski said.
Students also take home some of the food they grow.
“There’s such a disconnect between the grocery store and where the food is produced,” Romanski said. “Having connections to fruits and vegetables is really important.”
That’s one of the motivations for Hailey Logan, 15, a rising junior at Kennedy High School. She likes knowing where her food comes from, and she said gardening connects her to her grandmother, whom she grew up helping in her garden.
“Weeding can be a bit tedious, but it’s not that bad after it rains,” she said. “But I really love harvesting, and seeing where our work goes.”
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