In Picturesque Moab, Utah, a Youth Garden Project Serves to Strengthen Community and Supply Fresh Produce
January 25, 2017 | Charli Engelhorn
While catering to the whims and needs of the approximately 2 million tourists that visit the city of Moab, Utah each year in search of adventure and breath-taking scenery pays the bills and drives the economy for its nearly 5,200 residents, it is the efforts being employed by local youth in a garden project in town that help to build and strengthen community.
The Youth Garden Project (YGP) has as its focal an organic garden that serves as the nexus for both its youth-focused educational programs and produce distribution efforts.
“I think that an organization based on local food and education is important because food is something everybody can and does value,” says Delite Primus, executive director of YGP. “In a diverse world, where people disagree on a lot of things, food can often be a common ground for building community and connections between different groups and individuals of all ages.”
Sarah Heffron, a long-time Moab resident, started the garden in 1996 to provide the local youth with an educational and nurturing place to serve court-ordered community service hours and connect with positive adults.
Within that same year, Heffron connected with the local high school to create an alternative science class at the garden to help students attain credits needed for graduation. Although only one of 10 students finished the class, the student reported that the experience was life changing, prompting further support from the school district. Four years later, the garden moved to school district property, solidifying a long-term relationship.
“The kids are at the garden during the school day learning a curriculum-based science lesson that introduces them to a new concept they will learn more about in the classroom, or reiterates something already talked about in class with hands-on experience,” says Primus.
“I think connecting kids with where their food comes from and the process of growing food is empowering for them. The fact that they were part of growing food can help them feel confident to try or do other things in their lives.”
In the 20 years since YGP’s inception, more than 12,000 youth have participated in YGP programs, which also includes out-of-school programs aimed at providing structured, positive activities for kids during crucial afterschool and out-of-school hours.
“Moab is a working-class community, and many parents work a lot of hours during the tourist season. This creates a need for families to figure out where their kids will be during breaks from school or right after school,” says Primus.
Although strongly rooted in the youth programs, YGP is also committed to growing organic produce for distribution and sale. From leafy greens, tomatoes, and legumes to herbs and fruit from its orchard, YGP distributed approximately 3000 lbs. of produce in 2016, not counting the fruit preserved or made into jam.
This distribution includes donations made regularly to the community food bank to support access to local food, and to the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, which distributes the produce to its participants, according to Primus.
YGP also sells produce to local restaurants, provides greens to the high school cafeteria for the lunch program at a reduced cost, and operates a 15-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for an annual fee.
Proceeds from these endeavors combine with donations and grants from local, regional, and national foundations to help fund the garden. This funding has helped YGP continue to thrive despite losing AmeriCorps funding in 2011 due to budget cuts at the federal and state levels.
The loss of AmeriCorps funding also caused a shift in the structure of YGP’s staff and operations. To replace the numerous part-time positions previously funded by AmeriCorps, YGP decided to up their full-time staff from two to four and create a two-person internship program.
“We recruit through various websites, colleges, and universities and pay a small stipend a month plus housing,” Primus says. “The interns are not getting the AmeriCorps funding stipend and educational award, but they are still getting a learning experience, and housing is probably the greatest compensation.”
Anywhere from four to seven interns serve as garden intern or program intern for six to nine months throughout the year. The further needs of the garden are often met by volunteers who help support its operations.
At Weed N Feed events, for instance, community members are invited to the garden twice a month to help weed, maintain the compost pile, or contribute to other onsite projects in exchange for a healthy meal provided directly after. Volunteers help cook the meals for the Weed N Feeds and Garden Dinners, in which residents can purchase a ticket for an outdoor fine-dining experience with a four-course meal prepared by guest chefs.
In the future YGP hopes to expand its summer programs for kids and find new ways to engage high school students, which could include job-training programs. YGP is also looking for more meaningful ways to connect with community members of all ages.
“We try to be a cornerstone for building a place where people can come and be a part of something and connect with others,” says Primus. “It’s really important for us to be open and inviting to everybody and help people connect to food and to each other through the shared experience of food.”