4-H programs support youth-focused urban agriculture and workforce preparation

Food production and marketing help young people build crucial life skills.

The Food Project is an extraordinary model of youth development and workforce preparation. Founded in the metro Boston, Massachusetts, area 25 years ago, the organization’s mission is to “create a thoughtful and productive community of youth and adults from diverse backgrounds who work together to build a sustainable food system.” They operate five farms ranging in size from less than one acre to 34 acres, and provide stipend work to more than 120 local teenagers each year. Young people may choose to progress through three levels of “crews” during their Food Project experience, building skills in personal finance, diversity, leadership and public speaking along the way.

Local communities benefit from the Food Project’s produce, which is distributed via Community Supported Agriculture programs and urban farmer’s markets, and donated to hunger-relief organizations. Perhaps the most striking impact, however, is on the young people who participate in the program. A longitudinal study conducted with 30 alumni of the Food Project revealed six categories of outcomes experienced by program participants. These included the skills highlighted above, plus an understanding of social issues and knowledge about sustainable agriculture.

Interestingly, the least-frequently mentioned outcome was related to sustainable agriculture. Topping the list was preparation for the workforce. As the researchers noted, “From basic job skills and developing a work ethic to gaining managerial experience and finding a professional passion, those interviewed talked about how their experience at the Food Project set them on a positive trajectory into the work force. Further, the Food Project has had a considerable impact on the educational and career plans that the young people later pursue, influencing the fields they consider, as well as their perspective about how to work with others and the importance of finding meaning in their professional lives.”

Like most successful youth development programs, the subject-matter content of the program is an excellent vehicle to build life skills that are transferrable across many contexts. Some alumni did pursue agriculture- or food-related careers, but even those who did not were able to clearly describe how the skills they built via the Food Project helped them be successful in their future endeavors. One program alumnus summed it up by saying, “The Food Project has had a big impact on me. It made me more aware of my power to do what I want in life.”

That’s the intended outcome of Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H Food Project in Detroit, Michigan, which is an expansion of previous successes with urban agriculture in the city. If you’re interested in reading more about effective program models, peruse “Growing Leaders, Growing Change: Youth and Urban Agriculture.” If you’d like to support the positive development of young people through the 4-H Food Project in Detroit, please contact Allan Cosma at cosmaa@msu.edu. MSU Extension 4-H Youth Development also offers resources for positive youth development programs in every county in Michigan. Learn more about opportunities to volunteer with a 4-H program near you.

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