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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Summertime and the Gardening is Easy

Air Date: Week of

In Berkeley, California, citizens have found a way to employ youth and offer them hope for a healthy future — by gardening organically. Reese Ehrlich reports on this effort to educate teens about their food, provide them with work and open the door to self-employment.


(The song 'Summertime' is played on saxophone)

CURWOOD: Summertime. When the living is not so easy for kids in the inner-cities of the U.S. Sure, some are rich enough or lucky enough to get out to the countryside or the beach and get a break from the heat and bad air, but too many just hang out on a street corner, bored and broke, and convenient to any trouble that wants to cozy up to them.

One answer to the problem, of course, is jobs. And some people in Berkeley, California are running a summer jobs program that goes beyond the typical leaf raking and trash pickup details that are usually offered to youth. These jobs are in community gardens, where teenagers at risk of getting caught up in crime learn practical skills while producing vegetables for local elderly residents and small neighborhood enterprises. Reese Erlich has our story.

(Sounds of people digging and talking)

ERLICH: A group of 8 African American teens dressed in oversized varsity jackets and carrying beepers hang along Sixth Street in Berkeley. It's a blustery day. But Sepha Banjo, 15, stands her ground, her golden hoop earrings and nose stud shining against the dim morning light. her beeper suddenly goes off. But it's just a friend staying in touch. Banjo picks up a hoe and starts working the soil. Banjo is one of the teens hired with city money to work for Berkeley's Intergenerational-Strong Roots Garden project.

BANJO: I think this program will keep a lot of youth out of trouble if they just join because a lot of youth be out there doing a lot violence. But if they become interested in things like gardening or other things, I think, you know, it'll be better for them.

ERLICH: Gardening has become a potent tool in community organizing, according to Shyaam Shabaka, who coordinates the program.

SHABAKA: We're interested in growing more than just healthy vegetables, which in itself is very important. But we're interested in growing basically healthy youth, healthy families and a healthy community. And a garden is just one aspect of that.

ERLICH: The teens earn 5 dollars an hour tending the gardens. The vegetables are given away to seniors, but there are also plans to sell them at farmers markets. Shabaka says the gardening program helps fight crime, poverty and unemployment among Berkeley young people.

SHABAKA: Youth are able to produce vegetables which they can, in turn, market, which will, in turn, create income for them. And that goes back into their project. Also, it provides them with opportunities to further their education. They learn skills, they learn teamwork. And it also takes a lot of idle time off their hands.

(Restaurant sounds, customers and music)

ERLICH: At the other end of Berkeley, diners at the posh Chez Panisse restaurant eat squab and drink buttery chardonnays. A fixed price dinner here costs 65 dollars. But this gourmet ghetto is hoping to forge an organic connection with the African American one in West Berkeley.

WATERS: We buy a lot of our fruits and vegetables from the farmers' markets in Berkeley, and...

ERLICH: Downstairs in the kitchen, owner Alice Waters tastes some wine-glazed sauce. She says Chez Panisse wants to take the teen gardening concept one step further. She's working with a Berkeley Junior High School to develop classes in organic gardening and food preparation. She also hopes to change the fast-food orientation of today's teens.

WATERS: We have an idea to change the curriculum at the school so that we can incorporate a working garden and actually connect that garden with the school lunch program, where the children would bake the bread and prepare the food and then serve it to each other, and sit down for lunch. And we hope that in the process of doing this they will learn the values of taking care of the land, taking care of each other, responsibility to the community. The very basic things of how to nourish themselves.

(Sounds of digging and people talking)

ERLICH: That program is still in the planning stage. For the time being, Water's sentiment may sound a little touchy-feely to the African American youth in West Berkeley who have more down-to-earth concerns. Student Sepha Banjo is most interested in the extra cash gardening brings in. She and her parents have already set up a going concern.

BANJO: Me and my family are starting a garden in our backyard. You know, 'cause we need to make a little more money. So we're going to start a garden. You know, we're growing a lot of fruit now.

ERLICH: For 16 year old Ernest Carrol, community gardening has opened up whole new horizons. He's used to working the land, having grown up on his grandparents' small farm in Mississippi. Next visit home, he plans to take back some of the lessons from Berkeley.

CARROL: When I go back, I'd tell them farming organically would be a lot easier because the pesticides get into the plants and everything, and can damage the food. There are some insects that you need to have like the earthworm and the beetle and everything. Plus the food tastes better because it's organic.

ERLICH: Berkeley's Intergeneration Strong Roots Project recently expanded from 2 to 4 garden sites. But it faces a major problem in getting and keeping enough land. All of the land is on loan from private owners or non-profits who often want it back after a few years. Now a group of activists is pushing Berkeley to turn over vacant city land to be used permanently for community gardens. For Living On Earth, I'm Reese Erlich in Berkeley, California.



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