Raising Veggies Instead of Raising Cain

Life lessons for city teens involved in garden project

AFRICAN-American teenagers dressed in oversized varsity jackets and carrying beepers hang along Sixth Street in Berkeley. It's a blustery day, with cold wind slicing through trees and people alike.

Banjo stands her ground though. Her golden hoop earrings and nose stud shine against the dim morning light. Her beeper suddenly goes off. But it's just a friend staying in touch. Banjo goes back to hoeing soil.

Banjo is one of dozens of teens working for Berkeley's Intergenerational Strong Roots Garden Project. The nonprofit organization brings together seniors and youth to grow organic vegetables.

Gardening in Berkeley has become the latest community organizing tool to battle crime and instill black pride. Gardens are springing up all over town.

''A lot of youth be out there doing a lot violence,'' Banjo says. ''If they become interested in things like gardening, it'll be better for them.''

Shyaam Shabaka, coordinator of the Strong Roots program, explains that vegetable gardening teaches some important lessons -- from basic botany to self discipline. Gardening has a long tradition in the black community, he says.

''Some of the first gardeners came out of Africa. [Students'] fore-parents gardened for survival,'' Mr. Shabaka says. ''We're interested in growing more than just healthy vegetables; we're interested in growing healthy youth and a healthy community.''

But who buys the healthy vegetables? On the other side of the city in a shingled redwood building on restaurant row, Alice Waters tastes the day's wine-glazed squab sauce. She owns Chez Panisse, the city's poshest restaurant where a fixed price meal costs $65.

Ms. Waters buys organic produce from community gardens as a means of plowing profits back into the local community and because it's economical.

''We're buying all our spring onions from the Berkeley farmers' market,'' Waters says. ''The quality is the best. I have great hopes for the future of farmers' markets in this country.''

Waters is also working with Berkeley schools to develop classes in organic gardening. Children would grow their own vegetables and bake their own bread. ''We hope that in the process they'll learn the values of taking care of the land,'' Waters says, ''and taking care of each other.''

''Something very important happens when people ... begin to understand the relationship of what they put in their mouth and where it comes from.''

That approach sounds rather touchy-feely to the African-American teens in west Berkeley. For them, community gardening is a survival issue. They earn $5 per hour for an after-school job.

But land is in short supply. Because organic farming techniques take seven years of hard work to prepare the soil, activists are now demanding that the city provide permanent sites for community gardens.

Meanwhile, back on blustery Sixth Street in west Berkeley, Ernest Carroll rests his arm on a hoe. The tall, lanky teenager recently moved here from Macomb, Miss., where he worked on his grandparents' farm. Mr. Carroll already plans to take some lessons back to Mississippi. ''Back home they use pesticides,'' Carroll says. ''When I go back, I'll tell them farming organically is cheaper, easier -- and the food tastes better.''

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