Planting Crops, Harvesting Teen Leaders

Gardens at The Food Project sow a touchstone experience for urban and suburban youth

From the back of a slow-moving pickup truck at the vegetable garden of The Food Project, Seamus Lennon lobs a small dirt clod in Anthony Potter's direction.

Off to the side, Greg Gale, co-director of this summer project for teens, watches the little drama unfold. ''Let's see how they handle this,'' he says quietly.

Anthony, in a black T-shirt, moves closer to the truck, slightly angry and wanting to know, ''What's the big idea'' in tossing the dirt?

Seamus mumbles a harmless explanation, implying, ''What's the big deal?'' He pulls awkwardly on his baseball cap. Both turn away, knowing Mr. Gale and other staff people have seen a potential confrontation fizzle to nothing.

On this overcast day in the countryside west of Boston, the dirt clod episode in a small way proves The Food Project is much more than the sum of its vegetables. This innovative program, into its fourth year, and reaching beyond harvesting onions and tomatoes, helps shape, challenge, and support 30 urban and suburban teens brought together to understand their potential.

Although the centerpiece of the project is teens growing some 40,000 pounds of vegetables from seed on four acres, The Food Project more importantly creates a touchstone experience for teens in a dizzying world of temptations and choices. It helps teens answer, ''Who am I? What am I for?''

''We have statistical evidence that we grow 40,000 pounds of vegetables and serve 15 soup kitchens,'' says Pat Gray, co-director of the project, ''but that's how we get to what we really care about, which is personal growth in youth.''

The project does this through a structured, two-month program. Teens are paid $118 a week, subject to rules of a contract. Each week follows a theme like ''responsibility'' or ''vision.''

Physical labor in the gardens is mixed with exercises in planning, experience in sustainable farming, group sessions to review behavior and human relations, field trips, discussions, journal writing, and serving in homeless shelters and food kitchens. They also sell vegetables at a farmers' market.

With so many variables, the project has admittedly struggled to find the right balance. ''The first year we didn't have a good dynamic,'' Gale says. ''We were too prescriptive. Now we have approaches that keep the teens invested in the program.''

For instance, they divided the teens into three crews, each with a plot of land with identical crops. A fourth acre has been set aside as a community acre.

Claudette Thyme, a high school senior from Dorchester, Mass., has been in the program all four years.

''I like coming here,'' she says. ''It's so noisy in Dorchester all the time and quiet here.'' She laughs, ''But I'm louder, more outgoing now. I used to be shy at school, and now I'm friendly with everybody because of the project. I worked at Bradlees once, but there wasn't any love like there is here.''

This summer, 120 teens applied to The Food Project, many from the Roxbury area in Boston where the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community organization, is located. ''We selected the teens we felt could best be served by the program,'' Gale says.

Many are at-risk teens from troubled families. Others are from stable city and suburban families; some are from other countries. To get to Lincoln, some teens travel an hour and 40 minutes each way on public transportation and bring their lunch.

''We have a 94-percent attendance rate,'' Gale says. ''And parents tell us or write to us about how good it is to see the changes in their teens.''

Often the letters of recommendation emphasize the teen's potential but note the family situation is collapsing. ''He shouldn't be left alone for the summer,'' said one letter praising a boy's potential. Many teens come with a sense of bravado.

''This land here is sort of neutral territory,'' Ms. Gray says. ''It's not a suburban backyard or the city. They don't have to prove what they normally do with their peers. We don't have gangs. What happens here is a window of opportunity that allows us to reach them. They fall into this new community and its expectations, and by the second or third week, they are the community.''

There are other youth organizations around Boston that grow food and distribute it. ''But our main objective is different,'' Gray says. ''We develop youth through service and farming.''

''The great part of the project is the diversity,'' says Sal Frank, a crew leader. ''They really connect with each other, and when it comes to the crops, sometimes they'll say they can't believe that they grew it from seeds.''

After the crops reach maturity, hundreds of volunteers from churches, schools, and professional organizations join in the harvesting.

Wilbur Bullock, a teen from Boston, says his grandfather in North Carolina is a farmer. ''He wanted me to experience farming for myself,'' he says, ''and I like it. This project is helping me to think positive, and makes me want to go on studying music.''

For Jahera Otieno, a high school junior, The Food Project has made a big difference in her life. ''I think I'm much more mature now,'' she says. ''I'm not as outspoken, and I listen to people. Before I wasn't very good at accepting other opinions.''

The Food Project most recently was under the wing of Massachusetts Audubon Society. But evolving differences resulted in establishing it as an independent organization.

Although the 1995 operating budget is around $190,000, funding is still a challenge. ''It wasn't too long ago,'' says Gale, ''that people worked for three or four months without pay.''

Recently the organization established a board of directors. Several foundations supporting social causes, including the Boston Foundation, the Charles Hayden Foundation, the Straford Foundation, and the Riley Foundation, have stepped forward to contribute funds and support.

To extend its reach, the project is preparing a half-acre garden in Boston's inner-city Roxbury area. ''We want to connect the city and suburbia,'' says Gray, ''so the Boston teens have a garden here, and the suburban teens will come to Roxbury.''

John Cook, president of Environmental Careers Organization in Boston, and on the board of advisers for The Food Project, says, ''The difference of The Food Project from other youth programs is that it is not hierarchical. Everybody is teaching and learning from each other.... People are sharing from different backgrounds. That's very hard to pull off.''

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