Venture Roots nurtures south Phoenix youth with gardening courses

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It’s a sultry Friday morning in the Garden of Tomorrow, a community garden in southern Phoenix. Despite being on a busy thoroughfare, the calm of a room filled with fruiting citrus trees, glowing sunflowers, and fragrant herbs seems to soothe the rumble of passing cars.

Young children join those who water the land and sprinkle cayenne pepper to keep pests away. A boy who is not older than 4 years old helps to turn over the ground with a shovel that is almost as large, to press his foot deep into the earth and to pull out a pile.

When a downpour of cooling rain sets in, those weeding the garden along Broadway Road begin a community howl to celebrate the water needed.

The garden, along with Spaces of Opportunity, is one of the spaces where Project Roots hosts its new youth classes, one of which is taught by Brandon Bates. He said it is important to get his students to think about the benefits of farming and farming while they work with the community at the same time.

“Nobody can stop us from planting trees,” he said. “But they can trick us into not growing trees.”

Project Roots, a nonprofit that offers gardening and educates the community about growing food, offers these courses for teenagers to reconnect with the land and the origin of their food.

“Reconnecting our youth to earth and nature and how that can sustain our lives is really fundamental,” said Bridget Pettis, co-founder of Project Roots. “I’ve had so many young children coming to us and I’m just amazed to see food come out of the ground like magic is happening in front of them. They were so disconnected. “

For Pettis and co-founder Dionne Williams, connecting with land and food is not only useful knowledge, it also helps students feel more confident and build a community. The classes are also building blocks for his mission to feed everyone in South Phoenix and encourage all residents to grow their own food. In the first courses, the students were allowed to take plants home with them in order to further care for them.

“It had a huge impact on her,” said Williams. “We don’t have many farmers who expose people to food. Our ultimate goal is to feed and feed every family in South Phoenix. Every child who has taken a class goes home with a plant and that can help them grow food at home. “

“God’s food is better”

Bates was working at the Garden of Tomorrow when he lost his job last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He found out about Spaces of Opportunity through a friend and developed an interest in gardening. He spent a lot of time in the garden pulling weeds and building a knowledge base and, as he says, an understanding of what community really means.

He also wants to bring this closer to his students now.

“We want them to know why we are here and what would happen if we weren’t here,” said Bates. “We try to emphasize that. It may not be something that is glorified on TV, but that’s literally how we eat. “

Having a connection with your food and watching the work transform into something healthy and worthwhile helps anxious and discontented young people feel more grounded, Pettis said. It reminds them that life is for life, that land is as valuable as a job, and that they don’t have to give in to modern pressures.

“It gives kids a way to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to worry about the economy or get this job. You can get land, grow food and be self-sufficient, ”said Pettis. “We sell our jobs and careers every day, but we don’t sell our livelihoods.”

Pettis wants students to learn to support themselves and overcome the pitfalls of modern food consumption, such as over-promoting junk food to young people and looking at food in just a box or package.

“Another thing that we became aware of, and how we empower children, is that their health lies in their food,” said Pettis. “You don’t have to worry about what processed foods give you when you eat real food. As much as they push McDonald’s in front of them, God food is better. “

“Start every day at the roots”

South Phoenix has the highest concentration of food deserts in the city. Of the 43 food deserts identified by the city, 18 are wholly or partially located in southern Phoenix. The concentration of people living in extreme poverty and their historically underserved color communities led the city to create a distinctive South Phoenix Food Action Plan as part of the citywide Food Action Plan released in 2019.

It has not escaped Pettis’ attention that less than 2% of the country’s farmers are black. It’s something she keeps in mind when teaching students in a predominantly Latin American and black community. She said that while some cultures have been able to preserve their agricultural heritage, many black Americans have to work to get back the culture that was forcibly taken during slavery.

“My people, the black community, we’ve been robbed (of our culture),” Pettis said. “So we start at the root every day.”

In each class, Bates tries to ask questions and spark discussions that will make students think. Conversations while working together build relationships and increase connectivity with each other, he said. At the end of the class, he asks his students to share what they have learned.

“You shouldn’t have to go hungry,” said Bates. “You can say, ‘Hey, so if I grow my own food, can it save my mother money?’ We want to open their minds for this. And at the end of the day it’s not about money, it’s about community. “

Students feel empowered when they see role models who look like them.

“You see black and brown faces and you see black women doing things for the community, handing out food, selling food,” Williams said. “It’s important that you see that.”

How to take a course

Classes for children ages 5-13 are held on Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the Spaces of Opportunity at 1200 W. Vineyard Road in Phoenix.

Classes for teenagers aged 14 and over take place Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. in the Spaces of Opportunity and Fridays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. in the Garden of Tomorrow on 1823 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix.

If you want to register your children for a class, you can do so at projectrootsaz.org/events.

Participants should bring sunscreen, water, a hat, and gardening gloves.

Megan Taros covers South Phoenix for The Arizona Republic. Do you have a tip? You can reach her at mtaros@gannett.com or on Twitter @megataros. Your reporting is supported by Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.

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