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
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.
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.