Spring 2011

New 4-H Urban gardening program teaches teens business and horticulture

By Kim Markesich

The 4-H Teen Urban Gardening project is an Extension program for at-risk middle school children in New London and Bridgeport. The program was modeled after the F.R.E.S.H. New London urban gardening program.

The project is funded through a five-year, $660,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture award through the Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) Sustainable Communities Project

“This was a way to reach middle school students and create learning opportunities in a safe environment with supportive adults,” says Cathleen Love, professor in the Department of Extension and the grant’s principal investigator. “This is an important time for teens, because this is the age when kids make decisions about whether college is even a possibility.”

Students meet twice a week for two hours each session, with additional sessions during the growing season. “Pulling together an after school program is a lot more difficult in urban areas,” Love points out. “Parents often work multiple jobs, while middle school students rush home to care for younger siblings. We’re learning how to work around these resource issues.”

The program introduces 4-H to twenty-five students, ages 13 to 19, at each location. In New London, the program partners with F.R.E.S.H. and the New London public schools. The school system made a land parcel available for the program, while Arthur Lerner, director of operations for F.R.E.S.H., lent his expertise in program development.

Bridgeport partners include the City of Bridgeport, the Bridgeport Community Land Trust, and The Wholesome Ways Foundation. Michel Nischan, president of The Wholesome Ways Foundation and owner/chef of The Dressing Room, is a strong supporter of urban gardens and presents information and demonstrations on healthy food preparation. Using the urban garden as a life laboratory, the program teaches students leadership and life skills. Teens use computer technology and the 4-H Down to Earth gardening curriculum to design and create the gardens, learning practical horticultural and entrepreneurial skills.

Christine Santos, a 2010 UConn graduate with a degree in urban and community studies, works with the Bridgeport students, while Anique Wiggins, education coordinator for F.R.E.S.H., works with the New London group.

“The gardening project is a great opportunity for youth in the inner city to learn how to grow their own food and take those skills with them as they become older,” Santos remarks. “It will also teach them how to help out their community in a positive way.”

The program began during the summer of 2010 with site and soil preparation, raised bed construction, and program planning. In New London, students managed to plant a few late fall crops. Over the winter, students used gardening socks to plant seedlings.

During site preparation in New London, the students discovered raspberry bushes. Says Love, “It was fascinating to watch the kids eat fresh raspberries. Clearly, they had never tasted raspberries right from the plant. They couldn’t believe how sweet and tasty they were.”

Through sustainable gardening, the students learn new skills, work as a community, create a local food system, and develop a belief in their own ability to succeed. To learn more about the 4-H Teen Urban Gardening project, contact the New London County Extension Center or the Fairfield County Extension Center.

Anique Wiggins asked students in the New London group to comment on the program thus far. Here’s what they had to say:

“With Anique, I've learned plenty of new things. I learned how to plant many vegetables. I even learned how healthy food can really be something that people eat. I didn't only learn things that stay in my head, I learned lessons by working with Anique. I learned to always work as a team and never give up because if you do, you won't get what you want.” — Liliana Figueroa

“I have learned and experienced a lot with Ms. Anique. One thing was going out and working in the F.R.E.S.H. garden during and after school. Another thing we did was watch a movie called Food Inc. and then we did some research on our food and what’s in it. I really enjoy working with her.” — Andrew Byrd

“I have learned about a lot of things from Ms. Anique. We watched a movie called Food Inc. In the movie it talked about different foods and factories (what they try to hide). We also learned about gardening and the F.R.E.S.H. program where we planted, harvested, and ate different foods. Lastly, we even learned about team work. We work together even better than before.” — Nikita Terry

“I learned many things from Ms. Anique. Some include the food system, the difference between preserved and natural food, and also working with her after-school. I’ve seen food farms and how animals on the farms lived. We also learned about natural grown foods and the food preserved and what is in them. Lastly we learned about gardening and the F.R.E.S.H. program where we learned how to plant food and try many new things. We had a lot of fun.” — Khiara Phillips

“Ms. Anique es muy y graciosa, ella es been buena en caso de que tiene paciencia. Ella siempre trata a los estudiantes muy bien. Apesar de que ella no habla el espanol la accepto tal como ella es una maestro.” — Enid Rodriguez Martinez.

“One of the fun things we did here was go to the F.R.E.S.H. Garden and look for different types of vegetables like cover crops. Another thing was when we went to the computer lab and did research on plants. Also, when we learned to play teamwork games.” — Kyniel Mathews

“Well Ms. Anique is very fun! She takes us to the garden where we learn about different plants and play team work games. We watch movies about the food system and learn a lot.” — Victoriamarie Montanez

“I learned how to take care of the garden, eat healthy by eating vegetables and to grow my own food.
” — Ronald M

“I have learned things of how to stay healthy. Fruits and vegetables are good for our body. Also we should exercise to stay fit.”
— Alicia Mejia

“I learned that working out is a good thing to do. I also learned that by eating fruits and vegetables you can live a good life. Finally, I learned how to become a better team player.” — Yon Bures-Ortiz