Eight teenagers interning this year with ‘Feed Gwinnett’ to help address food insecurity discovered more than how to help hungry families -- including all the challenges of urban farming. The internships, organized by the nonprofit, Gardens for Growing Community, promotes urban agriculture and service-based learning.
“The program provides students with valuable work experience and entrepreneurial skills while giving back to the community,” stated G4GC Public Relations & Programs Coordinator Marianna Vazquez.
In two cohorts held over 27-weeks this past spring and summer, the high school students spent six hours almost every Saturday building raised beds, repairing irrigation systems, starting plants from seed and learning how to nurture growing plants. The effort took place under the mentorship of Gwendolyn Washington at her Lawrenceville-based farm, Phoenix Gardens, and in the large classroom aquaponics system at Brookwood High School, supervised by teacher Carrie Livers-Settles.
The teens also helped Washington harvest, clean and package produce for farmers markets and their own Feed Gwinnett booth.
Despite challenges like heavy rain damage, broken irrigation, pest infestation, and in the case of the aquaponics system a power failure that caused the loss of a significant number of the nitrogen-producing fish, the interns persevered.
Collectively the students were able to donate 150 pounds of fresh produce (enough to support about 50 families) to Norcross-based Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries.
Logan Zimmerman, a Discovery High School senior who graduated this spring, described his experience in a statement as a turning point in his career goals. “One weekend, there was a huge storm and water came from everywhere around the neighborhood – from people’s lawns, driveways, the street - flooding the area where we had planted food. It made me question how water quality affects the food we eat,” he explained.
As a result, Zimmerman has obtained state water testing certifications and is focusing his studies on water quality at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick, where he is now a freshman.
For rising Discovery High School senior Lily Butler, the experience gave her self-confidence a boost. “I’m actually shocked at how much it changed me. I’m talking more, asking questions and taking risks that I would never have done before,” said Butler who is now taking the lead as president of Discovery’s environmental club.
According to G4GC founder and director Tixie Fowler, personal growth is an embedded goal of the program. “You can’t connect deeply with nature and not be changed,” said Fowler. “Feed Gwinnett invites young people to get outside of their comfort zones just a little bit, and when we allow that for ourselves, nature will nurture all of us in the most astonishing ways.”
For Vazquez it was personally gratifying to see how much the students care about their community. “We don’t always appreciate what it takes to put food on the table,” she said. “It is great seeing how much these students care about each other, their community and those less fortunate.”
Feed Gwinnett, which paid students for their work, was funded by the Gwinnett Soil and Water Conservation District through a grant awarded by the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Fundraising to expand the programming in 2023 is already underway.