In true “Small Lake City” style, a friend of a friend put me in contact with Mike who is the founder of Real Food Rising (RFR). He has traveled through many cities working on community food projects. He arrived in Utah in 2012, where he started Real Food Rising with Utahn’s Against Hunger. Utahns Against Hunger works to end hunger through political and social reform. RFR is an innovative and powerful youth program, serving young adults aging from 14 to17. It teaches a diverse group of teens the important of growing food, but also teaches leadership, responsibilities, and community involvement.
After connecting with Mike, I was invited to spend the morning observing and working with the youth on their farm. It is located next to Neighborhood House, which donated their property to Real Food Rising. Over the past three years RFR has expanded its operation through hard work, grants, and volunteers. The current result is a huge city lot that was transformed from asphalt and a dump for construction scraps to a picturesque urban, community farm.
As I walked onto the lot, I was impressed with its large size and organization. All the vegetables were segregated into long, narrow rows. I crossed through a chain link fence, where the smiley staff greeted me. A young woman with light-brown hair pulled under a big straw hat and jean overalls introduced herself as Sara, the Youth Coordinator. She gave me the rundown on the morning activities and encouraged me to participate as much and little as I wanted. Sarah happily told me about RFR’s programs and pointed out how they have expanded the farm. Growing up in the local food scene in California inspires Sara’s passion for food. Before joining RFR, she started in the VISTA program and then worked as Youth Educator for the Wasatch Community Gardens. As we were chatting the youth arrived wearing their matching, summer-camp T-shirts. .
Next I chatted with Hanna, the RFR manager. She told me that when RFR stated, they had eighth the space. “We call that ‘the back 40’,” Hanna said. “It used to be asphalt, a laundry store, and a dump for construction.” She gestured to the back part of the lot and described how volunteers ripped up the asphalt with large plows just this year. There has been a lot of soil amending since then, Hanna admitted. The new space has been very successful. Last year they produced four times the output from years before. RFR donates the produce to Neighborhood House, local food banks, and charities. They work with the food pantries to get feedback on which crops are best liked. In addition RFR has a farm stand out front Mondays through Wednesdays (4pm-6pm). The stand is run by the youth in the program and sells cheap organic produce to the community. Hanna is a local from Logan, who worked on farms through high school and college. She later joined AmeriCorps before managing for RFR.
Once all the youth had arrived, we began the morning meeting, which was themed daily, today’s theme, responsibility. Everyone was asked to discuss a few questions like “Do we have a responsibility to the earth?” After generally discussing the questions, the youth were asked to write down their responses in their journals. Some of the responses were shared among the group, which were thoughtful and had conviction. One girl impressively said that responsibility is, “helping community and putting 100% into my work.” Nevertheless, the seriousness did not last too long, because next we moved onto some games, which got everyone all moving and laughing.
After the games and a drink of water, the youths were divided up into groups. Each group had different tasks to accomplish for the morning. One group cleared dead plants and added compost to reform the tidy rows for planting more lettuce. The other group cleared an overgrown part of their field to expand their crops. It was impressive to watch all the youth fearlessly and wholeheartedly attack each task, despite the heat and the demand of physical labor.
While they worked on their morning fieldwork, I chatted with some of the youth, and I learned about their experience with RFR. Everyone was talkative and informative. I met Paw and Cameron when they were sifting through their compost piles for the best soil. As they sifted, they told me about the details of how they compost. Momentum Recycling and Neighborhood House donate a majority of their materials. Paw and Cameron noticeably enjoyed their work. I asked them about their favorite vegetables, which were cucumbers and squash. Both of them wanted to have gardens when they grew up. Paw wants to be a nurse like her big sister, and Cameron wants to produce digital art and music.
The program teaches the youth many life lessons and skills. To participate in RFR, the youth apply with a resume and cover letter, and go through interviews. The application process provides the youth with professional experience. In addition, for their work at the farm, each youth earns a stipend of around $150 every two weeks. Through this experience, they learn good work ethics, teamwork, and accountability. In addition to everything they learn on the farm, the youth of RFR receive education in social and nutritional classes. RFR offers class part-time in spring and fall and full-time in the summer.
Also check out more pictures below!