The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Youth Series: Grow Dat Youth Farm

Youth Series: Grow Dat Youth Farm

In the News

August 27, 2013


Getting a job as a teenager is hard. Outside of working retail and waiting tables, the pickings for inexperienced youth tend to be slim. And finding a job that takes place outdoors, provides leadership training and prepares participants for a healthy future? Downright impossible – until now.

The Grow Dat Youth Farm is a working farm in New Orleans, Louisiana whose mission is to nurture a diverse group of young leaders through the meaningful work of growing food. Part education program, part afterschool job, teens get paid to tend the land while receiving important training that enhances their capacity to communicate, solve problems and work in diverse settings.

“The idea for Grow Dat is simple: hire young adults, whose job options are often limited to fast food restaurants, to grow food for their community. In New Orleans we suffer from diet-related disease in numbers even higher than the staggering national averages. We believe in the ability of young adults not only to change those patterns in their own lives, but also to be leaders to improve their food system. At Grow Dat, we give young people the skills to do just that,” says Johanna Gilligan, Grow Dat’s Co-Director/Program Manager.

To get the job, youth must submit a written application, letters of recommendations, and undergo an interview. Once accepted, participants go through a 20-week job training program. During the school year youth work one half-day a week and on Saturdays, and then four days a week in June. Graduates of the program have the option to train further and work as program leaders.

During the 20-week session, teens grow 10,000 pounds of food on the farm, of which 60% is sold. The same youth that grows the food then sells the food at local Farmers Markets. The remaining 40% is designated as “Shared Harvest” and donated to local residents without access to fresh, local, organically grown food. As with the food they sell, participating youth, along with the help of their families and communities, are responsible for donating the food to local pantry kitchens and food banks. It is exactly this type of hands-on approach that helps foster pride, a feeling of ownership and therefore, crucial lifelong leadership skills.

Founded in 2011, Grow Dat is heavily modeled on a similar two-decade-old program in the northeast, known as The Food Project, which hires over 150 youth annually to farm on over 40 acres throughout Massachusetts. The Food Project grows over a quarter-million pounds of food, donates thousands of pounds of produce to local hunger relief organizations, and sells the remaining food through CSA farm shares and Farmers Markets. 

Like Grow Dat, The Food Project has a large educational component and a strong focus on community outreach with the goal of building healthy, sustainable food systems. To help promote access to fresh, affordable produce, youth go out into their neighborhoods and help residents build raised-bed gardens. The process of growing their own produce also helps them learn the importance of healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. It is this combination of farming, working, training and outreach that has inspired many other community projects to get started.

While both of these programs share elements with many youth programs, there are a couple of aspects that set them apart. One is that they both use the land as a resource – for growing food, for bonding, for developing life skills and for learning the value of hard work. Another is the fact that both Grow Dat and The Food Project are paid jobs – for many it’s the first job they’ve ever had – and they are jobs where the work is real and the training is thorough and meaningful. 

Gilligan points out that young adults coming from low-income communities often are under pressure to earn additional income for their family, which is why they believe it is critical to compensate them for their time, giving them the rare opportunity to earn money while developing their leadership and farming abilities in a job setting. Additionally, relating to young adults as employees changes the ability to set and enforce high expectations for their performance, creating a dynamic and challenging environment in which they can thrive. 

“Grow Dat also differs from other local job training and youth farm models in its commitment to diversity. No other job training program in New Orleans draws students from both public and private schools to create opportunities for cross-cultural learning and collaboration. We believe this is an essential part of building the social capital necessary to make broad social change,” says Gilligan. 

This year Grow Dat graduated 25 youth from their five-month leadership development program and they have grown 8,500 pounds of food. A small sample of their pre-post data demonstrates their ability to nurture the "skills for success" among the youth they work with: 100% of youth reported improvements in their communications skills; 91% felt more comfortable interacting with people of different backgrounds, and 81% reported that their leadership skills improved. These skills, among many others that youth develop while in the program, are broadly applicable in academic, work and home settings, says Gilligan.

“Young adults are already being engaged in the food sector, but unfortunately they are being engaged primarily as the consumers and vendors of highly processed foods. We have the opportunity to instead engage them as producers and consumers of healthy, local foods. Once taught how to grow, prepare and enjoy fresh, local food, teenagers become the best ambassadors for health we can imagine, encouraging their families and friends to eat better and grow their own food,” she says.

One of Grow Dat’s 2012 graduates adds, “My family was really supportive of my job. They love the way that I come back with fresh produce, and all the things I come home and share about it, like what these plants do for you, and why they’re important. I’m bringing a steady change of a balanced diet to my house.”