Growing kids and spinach

Lyndale Youth Farm provides outlet for youth with green thumbs

Kids hate spinach?

Not the Lyndale Youth Farm gang. They plant it, water it, keep it free of weeds, then harvest and sell it. They get to cook and eat it, too.

Spanakopita’s on the lunch menu they’re preparing today, along with the bread they’re kneading with fierce determination, a Greek salad they’re chopping and assembling, and homemade ice cream already set to chill, as part of today’s Greek focus in this summer’s “Around Our Bodies, Around the World” theme. They learn that spinach can be yummy and that it pumps iron into our blood.

Upwards of 40 kids ages 9-14 spend three days a week for eight to 10 weeks a summer working in their garden at the Lyndale Elementary School playground – one of the Lyndale Youth Farm project’s three plots – guided by four adult and eight youth staffers.

The program was launched in 1995 by David Brandt, a member of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association who saw kids without something to do in summer and got 10 of them involved in planting and selling lettuce that pilot year -“something both practical and fun,” explains Program Director Deb Klein, who leads this morning’s informal info session.

“What do we harvest?” she asks. “Zucchini!” a kid is ready with an answer. “How?”

“Twist it off.”

“How do you guys know when to harvest?” a youth leader pursues.

“When it’s ready,” advocates Lorenzo, 8. Not quite definitive.

“Give examples of ‘ready,’” the leader coaches.

“Well, when tomatoes are fully red.” Good.

“What do you do with the harvest?”

“Eat it.”

“Sell it.”

A harvest demo follows as the gang is sent to scout for basil, thyme and oregano. Next come the daily chores of weeding, watering, preparing compost and laying wood chips. “What do you like to eat best?” a reporter asks Naailah, 13. “Dill tastes pretty good,” she allows, “and fennel tastes like licorice.”

Lorenzo confesses a fondness for mesclun mix. Sadiyya, 10, is a veteran of past summer’s program. “I like lavender; I like the smell,” she says. “And I like taking care of the plants and stuff. We learned that you should pull the weeds because they use up the water.”

The Lyndale program, which has (excuse the expression) mushroomed due to word-of-mouth, particularly from sibling vets, reach capacity in 1999, so similar programs at Powderhorn Park and the West Side were launched. “The next big change came in 2001,” Klein recalls. “We’d been part of the public schools’ summer lunch program – cold food, packaged – when we decided, ‘Why not teach them about good food instead of eating junk?,’ so the kitchen program was incorporated” at nearby Zion Lutheran Church, involving five kids daily under the guidance of Bobby Kokoct, an easygoing cook, who explains to Yanelli, 10, and Paula, 8, as they knead the day’s bread, “The more flour we add, the more difficult it is. Pull up from the back, then push down in the middle.” Which they do con gusto.

Since 2001, eight youths – kids who’d grown up in the program and needed a way to keep involved – have been added to the paid staff, which includes four adults. In addition to gardening and nutrition, they’re learning about work-readiness, – vital job skills such as the importance of being on time, advance planning and how to mentor younger members. “Gardening and cooking are the springboard for life skills,” Klein underscores.

Until last year, each kid in the program was paid daily for participation as an attendance incentive, with funds derived from NRP, foundations, corporate grants and individual gifts. Today, that’s changed, due to diminishing funding and, Klein adds, “because it didn’t meet our goals. Instead, at the end of the summer, we split up the money earned at each Saturday Market – typically $70 a week garnered from their stand at the Kingfield Farmers’ Market at 43rd & Nicollet. We discussed how it could be used. Ideas they came up with included camping and canoeing, buying a trampoline, and giving the money back to the project. The group finally decided to use it on a field trip to a roller garden. Sadiyya learned the hard way not to waste her share.”

With her part of each kid’s $25 allotment, she said, she “bought junk” and at the end of the day had little left beyond regrets.

The project’s formal mission is to nurture relationships among youth, family, community and the earth around them through growing, cooking and selling food. “What makes it different from other community-organization models is the emphasis on ‘nurture’,” Klein explains: “What does each kid bring, and how can we build on that? Cultural nutrition is our goal – being proud of where they came from (one-third are Muslims of Somali descent, another third Latinos, and the final third mostly African-Americans, many of whom also are Muslims) and sharing that background with other kids. Our point of view is to build on what [foods] kids experience in their homes and work with that to help teach healthy choices.”

At first she hears a lot of “Yuck! I don’t like salads,” “but we’re making inroads,” Klein declares. “Misky, for instance, comes from a family of 10 kids whose mother didn’t let them in the kitchen. Now they can come in and cook on their own.”

Afternoons are spent in groups of each kid’s choice: cooking, sparts (sports and arts), theater and crafts (the latter of which they’ll then sell at the market, too). Activities culminate in the annual Harvest Festival, this year Aug. 16, at which families and neighbors can see what the kids have been up to. “We cook a huge meal and invite over 100 people. There are farm tours, a play by the theater group and presentations,” says Klein.

The project’s eight-member board is composed of a parent, a nonprofit lawyer, business people, a Macalester College professor interested in community development and such, along with a youth representative. Its job is to supervise Executive Director Gunner Leiden, make policy decisions, approve the proposed budget and raise funds. Restaurateur Lucia Watson, an active board member from the outset, last year held two fund-raising events: a dinner and a fashion show. How did she become involved? “It started that first year in 1995 when the kids showed up at the restaurant’s back door with produce, asking: ‘Want to buy it?’”

And the rest is history, still in the making.