Teens Harvest Leadership, Better Nutrition Through Farming
Dwone Cooper, 17
Health in Motion – watch our grantees tell their own story!
By Rebecca Jones
Photography by James Chance
Dwone Cooper can hardly count all the new experiences he has had since he was hired at GreenLeaf a year ago. He has:
- Discovered what it's like to make personnel decisions since he and his co-workers jointly hire new staff.
- Become adept at public speaking, giving presentations in huge auditoriums and fielding questions from listeners.
- Learned about aquaponics – a cutting-edge, sustainable food production system – plus a lot of old-fashioned gardening techniques.
- Tasted fresh fruits and vegetables that he had never even heard of before, such as a haogen melon that was "incredible."
- Learned business skills and honed better work habits such as getting to his job on time every day.
It's all pretty impressive for a 17-year-old's resume.
"It's been a year now, and I've learned how to run a farm," says Cooper, a student at Denver's Venture Prep High School. "I never knew anything about growing food until I started doing this."
GreenLeaf (www.greenleafdenver.org) is the handiwork of Leah Bry, a onetime union and community organizer with a passion for healthy eating and youth leadership. The organization takes a small group of young people ages 14 to 18 and involves them in urban farming.
The teens do everything – from planning the crops to weeding, irrigating and fertilizing. They also determine what becomes of the harvest.
"GreenLeaf is my best thinking about how to create change working in partnership with young people," Bry says. "They are brilliant and amazing, and already capable of amazing things. When we work in an intensive small-group setting, GreenLeaf is an example of what we can achieve."
Founded in 2008, GreenLeaf involves 16 young people and two adult supervisors farming about 8,000 square feet, split between two farm sites. One, at 25th and Arapahoe streets, was developed in partnership with the Denver Housing Authority. The other, at East 38th Avenue and Williams Street, is a privately owned plot donated by the woman who lives next door.
Bry hired her first crew in February 2010. Since then, whenever one member of the crew retires, the others select a replacement.
"They hand out applications, do interviews and check references," says Bry.
The jobs are year-round. During the school year, GreenLeaf workers spend four to five hours a week plus Saturday mornings on the job. In summer, it's a 20-hour-a-week commitment. Workers earn minimum wage but gain valuable leadership experience in addition to their wages. They also reap some of the fruits of their labor.
Bry acknowledges the existing arrangement isn't sustainable from sales alone. "We're intentionally overstaffed," she says. "It doesn't take 18 farmers to cultivate this much land. But we're providing leadership development, and we're also providing food to the neighborhood at below-market prices."
At present, about 2 percent of GreenLeaf's $100,000 annual budget comes from food sales. Most funding comes from grants and fundraising, although Bry hopes that within five years, food sales and other earned income can account for at least 25 percent of the budget.
Last year, GreenLeaf workers determined that they would take home 15 percent of their 2,700 pounds of produce and would donate 20 percent to hunger relief organizations. The remaining 65 percent was sold on-site on a sliding scale.
For Cooper, working with GreenLeaf has changed his and his family's diet.
"It's definitely made me think differently about the food I eat," he says. "Especially fast food. I don't look at it the same anymore. This has made me more aware of eating fresh fruits and vegetables straight from our farm. I think it would be nice for me to have a personal garden for my family one day."