Teenagers study meals in Columbus summer season gardening program

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Launched in 2019, the Highland Youth Garden’s Green Teen program enables teens to care for their own plants, visit nearby municipal gardens, and hear from guest speakers on sustainability issues.

Robert Alexander Jr. put a small pile of Napa coleslaw on his plate and eyed him suspiciously.

The dish was made with fresh cilantro, carrots, and onions harvested from the surrounding community garden, and wasn’t the spicy food 14-year-old Robert said he preferred. But the teenager is nothing if not adventurous – which is why Robert, a Georgia resident, joined his 14-year-old Columbus cousin Tashaun McGowan to work at the Highland Youth Garden on the city’s west side during his summer Family visited.

He soon overcame his hesitation and took a small bite.

Robert chewed slowly and thoughtfully while the rest of the teenagers waited for the verdict. Not bad, he said, but Robert praised the tofu, which was grilled that day by Charlie Richardson, a senior gardener at the youth garden about a block south of West Broad Street near the Hilltop neighborhood.

The group of teenagers all participate in the garden’s Green Teens summer program, which pays them a part-time wage while also teaching them gardening skills. They had taken a lunch break after spending the morning of June 29 working under the blazing sun to grow their own tomatoes, mustard greens, and other fresh produce.

“I don’t get out of the house very often, so I saw this as an opportunity to try something new,” said Robert, who lives in the town of LaGrange, Ga., As he cut up raw tofu for Richardson to cook.

His cousin Tashaun, who lives nearby with his grandma, said he has enjoyed gardening for a long time and sees it as an opportunity to expand his skills.

In 2009, neighborhood resident Peggy Murphy led efforts to convert a vacant lot on the corner of Highland and Floral Avenues into a bustling community garden with an emphasis on youth education. In the third summer, Green Teens is now one of several youth education programs offered at the Highland Youth Garden.

Continue reading: Ginther unveils a series of youth summer programs aimed at reducing violence in Columbus

The eight-week program is also part of the summer initiatives the City of Columbus is funding this year to keep youth engaged in constructive activities in hopes of containing the rise in violent crime, which officials say too often affects teenagers.

In May, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther also unveiled a range of summer camps and seasonal employment opportunities for young people.

Continue reading: Columbus City Council is considering funding more youth summer programs to help curb violence

The advance comes amid rampant violence – much of it with weapons – that has killed at least 10 young people under the age of 18 so far this year.

Among them: Makenzi Ridley, 17, was killed when she was hit by gunfire outside the Far East Community Center on June 24th. And on May 22, 16-year-old Olivia Kurtz was killed and five other teenagers injured in a shooting in downtown Bicentennial Park during an unapproved DJ party in the local amphitheater.

Continue reading: A teenager who was shot dead in front of the Far East Residence Center was “everything,” says Mom

Ginther and other city officials hope that by funding these initiatives, the organizers of the summer program can expand their efforts and deter children from engaging in criminal and violent activities.

All told, the Green Teens program received $ 85,000 for the summer – $ 20,000 from the city and an additional $ 65,000 from Columbus-based research firm Battelle – said Shelly Casto, executive director of Highland Youth Garden.

That money will enable Highland to pay the teenagers $ 11 an hour for around 20-25 hours a week and shop for gardening supplies, Casto said. Although the garden is mostly run by a core group of around 60 volunteers, Highland recently added two part-time jobs and the summer funding is also used to pay their salaries.

Last summer, the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to cut the program by bringing fewer teenagers and eliminating guest speakers and excursions, which had become highlights of the opening program in 2019.

This year, however, the program is back in full force with 10 teenagers heading for “an action-packed summer” after starting on June 22, Casto said.

Teens will spend the summer tending their own plants, visiting nearby municipal gardens, and hearing from guest speakers on topics such as sustainability and nutritional inequality. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, they also help distribute food to the community’s residents.

Ultimately, the goal is for students to stay through the fall to support Highland’s educational program that results from partnerships with nearby schools.

“It’s an underserved neighborhood where parents struggle very hard to get food on the table, and that means they have less bandwidth to care for their children,” Casto said. “Children in this neighborhood need other adults who can support them and introduce them to people and places that could spark their interests.”

That Tuesday in late June, the teenagers found relief from scorching temperatures in the shade of a tent where they chopped and seasoned the ingredients for the coleslaw while Richardson cooked the tofu on a propane grill. The dish is a far cry from the burgers and pizza that most teenagers crave, and Richardson said that’s exactly the point.

“Cooking is a big part of our job,” said Richardson. “I think it’s important that you learn the relationship between the earth and its food.”

The other teenagers may have had reservations about Napa’s coleslaw at first, but such food is nothing new to 15-year-old Natalia Campos from Galloway. She said she was vegan and it was this environmentally conscious mentality that inspired her to apply for the gardening program.

“I like gardening a lot and I love the environment,” said Natalia. “I thought that seemed fun.”

elagatta@dispatch.com

@EricLagatta