In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to overlook the importance of a balanced diet and access to fresh, nutrient-dense foods. Unfortunately, many communities face significant challenges when it comes to accessing these essential resources.
Our SEED Skills gardens, which make up 4 of our 26 garden sites, are making a profound impact on communities by providing a training ground to teach sustainable gardening skills and empowering residents to regain control over their access to healthy food – addressing critical public health issues of nutrition and food accessibility.
If that wasn’t enough to get you interested, these gardens are managed entirely by teenagers.
SEED Skills is a dynamic program that includes a combination of hands-on work, classroom curriculum, and interactive activities. Youth participants manage organic gardens in their own neighborhoods, where they learn to grow, harvest, and bring the produce to market, selling subscriptions to their neighbors. They also learn to prepare healthy food for themselves and their families.
See our post on how Trellis for Tomorrow’s produce subscriptions aren’t what you expect and are making a huge impact.
Let’s dig into why the SEED Skills program is so unique and how these gardens (and the young leaders who steward them) are having transformative impacts on the communities in which they are built.
The Importance of SEED Skills:
The SEED Skills program goes beyond traditional community gardens. It is a comprehensive initiative designed to equip people with the knowledge and practical skills needed to grow their own food nearby and sustainably. By fostering a sense of self-reliance, SEED Skills empowers communities to take charge of their own nutritional needs and overcome barriers to accessing fresh, nutrient dense foods.
Earlier this year, we dove deep into the history of our youth programs, exploring the transition from bringing members of underserved communities to gardens to bringing gardens right into the hearts of the community.
SEED Skills gardens serve as vibrant hubs of community engagement, bringing people together to learn, collaborate, and share knowledge. These spaces become focal points for education, enabling people to gain skills, discover the science behind gardening, and develop sustainable practices. Beyond cultivating garden sites, the program also cultivates a sense of belonging and unity within communities, fostering a collective spirit of resilience and well-being.
Addressing Food Inequality:
One of the most significant impacts of SEED Skills gardens is the youth’s role in combating food inequality. For many underserved communities, accessing fresh produce can be challenging due to limited availability, high costs, or geographical barriers. These gardens provide a local solution, enabling people to grow their own nutritious foods right in their neighborhoods – reducing reliance on processed and less nutritious alternatives, transportation barriers to access, and improving the physical and mental health of vulnerable communities.
Beyond Food: A Holistic Approach:
SEED Skills Gardens offer more than just sustenance; they create transformative spaces that enhance community well-being holistically. These gardens serve as outdoor classrooms, promoting environmental education and awareness of sustainable practices. Moreover, they become sources of beauty, tranquility, and pride, revitalizing neighborhoods, and fostering a sense of ownership.
Since its inception in the Summer of 2018, SEED has increased from 1 garden site to 4, and from 15 participants to 90. These SEED Skills gardens embody the transformative potential of community-driven initiatives. By addressing the critical issue of food accessibility and equipping people with vital skills, these gardens empower communities to take control of their nutritional well-being. Through sustainable agricultural practices and a holistic approach, SEED Skills gardens inspire change, foster unity, and cultivate a healthier, more resilient future for all. With each garden planted, we move closer to a world where everyone has equitable access to fresh, nutrient-dense foods, creating healthier and happier communities.
It was 2005 – the year that YouTube was created, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and Guitar Hero hit shelves for the first time. 2005 was also the year that Clemens Pietzner (founder) and Mark Birdsall (former Director of Youth Programs 2004-2016) had a phone call with Temple University’s Youth Voices Program.
(If you missed our blog where Clemens, Mark, and others reflect on their time at Trellis for Tomorrow, find it here)
After a discussion about the challenges, burdens, and choices that our young people face when it comes to food, it became overwhelmingly clear that there was an opportunity for youth across the greater Philadelphia area to become more connected to the food they ate: where it came from, how it was grown, how to cook it, etc.
Mark and Clemens agreed to bringing some of Temple’s young people together with some of our interns once a month to learn about their food system, work on farms, and cook the food they helped grow. Out of this conversation, Food for Thought was born.
The Early Years
Food for Thought group photo, 2008
One Saturday morning, an initial group was scheduled to participate in the program at the Charlestown CSA. ONE student got off the bus. But we learned from our trials and found creative ways to get more young people involved.
One of the best experiences that first year was a two-night overnight at Camphill Soltane in Nantmeal (a campus for people with disabilities and where our offices were located at the time). We visited local farms, worked at the Kimberton CSA, and made butter and fresh bread with the staff from Soltane.
We saw that having the group for a whole day, giving them fresh food, talking through their experiences in the evening, and repeating the experience the next day had a major impact. The second summer, we created a similar experience at Chamounix Mansion Hostel in Fairmount Park.
At the time, we were looking to attract young people from Philadelphia. But that fall, we started talking about the youth here, in Chester County, that would benefit from this program. So, we moved the program out to the Kimberton Waldorf School that next summer.
Gradually, over the 2005-2009 period, we solidified the program and established the routines and values that made it unique. We served about 24 youth per summer, for 3 weeks, paying them a small stipend ($10/day) as an incentive.
Food for Thought cooking class, 2008
During those years, youth went to Kimberton CSA, Sancanac CSA, and Charlestown Farm CSA. It was hard work, upwards of 3 hours each morning in the gardens, but many of our youth came back year after year because it meant something to them. (You can still read the old blog posts here)
Then, in 2008, when the financial crisis hit and stimulus money flooded state coffers – Chester County called and offered us funding to take 40 youth for 4 or 5 weeks and pay them minimum wage. After some intense discussion, we agreed we could, and we did. Chester County became one of our biggest supporters for years.
Transporting participants from communities like Park Springs and Rolling Hills posed a logistical challenge and, while working with CSA’s provided significant value, the food harvested didn’t actually make it back to the communities that needed it. We thought, why bring the community to the garden, when we could bring the garden to the community?
An Exciting Transformation
So, in 2018, Food for Thought went through a pretty significant transformation. We worked with our partners at Hobarts Run (the community impact arm of the Hill School) and in the summer we piloted the first SEED Skills program (formerly Youth Seed Enterprise) at a new garden located on a vacant lot right in the heart of Pottstown Borough.
SEED Skills provides a dynamic combination of hands-on work, engaging classroom sessions, and transformative activities for young people ages 13-18. This model allowed us to establish gardens directly in the communities where most of our participants lived – bringing increased access to fresh and nutritious produce directly to their families and neighbors.
Since then, the program has grown each year. We now have 4 SEED Skills gardens that are completely youth-run and are situated in neighborhoods where there is historically less access to nutrient dense food. During the pilot season in 2018, we had 15 participants. In 2022, that number was up to 70. In 2023, it’s projected to grow again.
But even as this new format took root, we noticed a trend – many of our participants would leave the program by age 14 or 15 to pursue summer jobs for higher pay, and those that did return for multiple years experienced a similar program year after year.
To find out what happened next, read this post about our Leadership Track.
A Big Impact
Today, the impact this program makes on the lives of young people is clear. Like with Emily, who shares, “When I joined the program, I didn’t really like gardening or people. But somehow, with Trellis, it just works.” 2 years later, Emily continues to grow with us and is a now a Senior Team Leader.
By the end of the summer, they transformed – opening themselves up to more opportunities, making friendships, and even landing a job for the school year. Crane’s mom followed up with us after the summer to share that they had started their new job and credited the program as a big factor in his new-found confidence and success.
We’ve come a long way since 2005 and have touched the lives of many. Join us in celebrating how far we’ve come with a gift to our Resilient Communities Fund today.
Cailin is a long-time supporter of Trellis for Tomorrow’s mission. As Director of Individual Giving, they come to us with 10 years of experience in community building and fundraising. When they’re not working in their own garden, you can find them rock climbing, mountain biking, or at their son’s hockey game.
Something special is happening at Trellis for Tomorrow. Beyond the many gardens, hundreds of volunteers, tens of thousands of pounds of organic produce, and the countless meals positively impacted by nutrient-dense foods distributed throughout the region, something incredible is happening within our youth programs.
From the early days and tender beginnings of Trellis for Tomorrow, we have been developing and delivering exceptional youth programs which have had both an immediate and lasting impact in the lives of the young people we serve. In fact, one of our board members – Tessa Henry – is a former participant and a serious advocate for the power of our programs.
(If you missed our blog on the history of our youth programs, you can find it here.)
For nearly 20 years, Trellis has paid close attention to the landscape around us and has cultivated a deep awareness of the pressing needs our young people face. This has enabled us to develop programs that are responsive to current needs and realities and has often placed Trellis at the leading edge of youth engagement and community impact. This is certainly exemplified by our SEED Skills youth program and the Leadership Track that has grown out of it.
“I don’t know where I would be without it.” – SEED Leader
SEED Leaders posing with community member.
In 2018 we piloted a new program – SEED Skills – which “flipped the script” on our previous models. Instead of bringing young people from their communities for meaningful learning experiences at area farms, we asked: what if we brought the farms into their communities. The result was SEED Skills, which utilizes Student-led Enterprises and Environmental Discovery to engage young people and inspire them to build more sustainable communities.
The success and growth of Trellis’ SEED Skills program has been significant. We have grown to include four garden locations with separate youth cohorts. In 2022, more than 70 young people participated, with many returning for their second or third time in the program.
To support the upward trajectory of these incredible youth, we created our Leadership Track. The Leadership Track provides youth with a chance to grow into new roles, take on more responsibilities, and earn more money while building their resumes and expanding their network and future opportunities.
Qualified candidates are returning participants who attend Springboard– our annual leadership training program for returning youth offered every spring. Upon completion of that training, our staff meets 1 on 1 with each participant discuss interests and skill sets in several categories. If participants have shown initiative and are interested in pursuing a leadership role, they are brought on as either Junior Team Leaders, Senior Team Leaders, or Junior Program Assistants.
SEED Leaders speaking about their experiences at Cultivar.
We decided early on that, if we truly want these young leaders practice the leadership skills they’re learning, they should really be the ones to shape the program. As a result of this decision, our SEED Leaders have been critical in shaping what it means to be a part of the Leadership Track. Since 2021, our youth leaders have grown this program into a robust – year-round opportunity.
Trellis currently has 11 SEED Leaders, two of whom were recently hired on our staff as Junior Program Assistants. Together, these 11 young leaders have decided to meet on a twice monthly basis throughout the year, discussing matters that are important to our programs and encouraging each other to grow as leaders at school and elsewhere in the community. Trellis hosts many of these meetings and provides materials and training for continued growth.
In 2023 we expect more than 20 young people to participate in Springboard with the hopes of enrolling or continuing on our Leadership Track. It is an impressive group of aspiring leaders. “I am truly in awe of our SEED Leaders,” says Grace Hardy, Trellis’ Program Manager, “I have seen many of these young people grow from shy kids to confident leaders. They are really heading places and it’s an honor to play a role in their lives along the way.”
This piece was co-written by program staff members David Ryle and Grace Hardy. David is our Senior Programs Manager and comes to us with 15 years of experience in community building, social justice work, and organic agriculture. Grace is our Programs Manager and comes to us with nearly 10 years of experience in outdoor education and working with young people to build leadership skills in hands-on environments.