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Youth Conservation Corps celebrate end of summer program

Posted by Patrick Rosso  August 30, 2013 05:00 PM

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(Patrick D. Rosso/

Darius Wilson, 17, of Dorchester and Zachary Marseille, 16, of Mattapan inspected the garden’s tomato patch Friday.

Above the traffic and exhaust that lingers on Massachusetts Avenue sits an urban oasis growing food to feed the hungry.

The Boston Natural Areas Network’s Northampton Street garden, located on the rooftop courtyard at the Boston Public Health Commission’s building at 35 Northampton St., produces fruits and vegetables for area food pantries, in addition to training the next generation of urban gardeners.

On Friday, the youngsters that participated in the non-profit’s Youth Conservation Corps program celebrated the end of the summer program and sample some of the plants they have been caring for over the past two months.

“This was originally built as a landscaped courtyard and I don’t think it was intended to be a vegetable garden,” explained Jeremy Dick, the director of property and horticulture for BNAN. “The space wasn’t being used effectively so we introduced this garden and it has been very successful.”

The location, a vast sea of concrete between towering buildings four-stories above the street, was first adopted in 2010 by the Food Project, a food advocacy non-profit, and a small section was converted into a garden. After BNAN, a open space and community garden non-profit, took over the space in 2012, organizers with the group and its army of youth transformed and expanded the garden into a space capable of producing over 1,500-pounds of fresh, organic food a season.

The food is donated to the Boston Medical Center’s Preventative Food Pantry, the Healthy Baby Healthy Child program, and the Hyde Park Food Pantry.

“We’re trying to create a sense of stewardship for natural places and instill the idea that they [the youth] can make an impact on their communities,” explained Candice Cook, program manager for BNAN.

During Friday’s event the youth led advocates and staff on a tour of the garden, explaining the variety of vegetables that can be found in it and showing off the newly rebuilt compost pile.

The youth who took part in the program get paid minimum wage and spend about 25 hours a week tending to both the Northampton Street space and another BNAN managed space in Hyde Park. Taking part in every aspect of the process, from planting the seeds to harvesting the crops, the program aims to get the youth thinking about both open space and what is in their own fridge.

“You can really see a transformation take place in the kids,” explained Casey Townsend, an urban grower for BNAN and youth supervisor. “We’re not going to necessarily change their eating habits or turn them into farmers, but we can give them that knowledge about where their food comes from and how it impacts their lives.”

“For more than half this is their first time working in a garden,” Cook said. “We’re trying to introduce them to gardens, but it’s also about opening up their own lunches and seeing what’s really in a bag of Doritos.”

As some of the youth showed off the rows of tomatoes and the coveted pumpkin patch, others prepared samples for the guests.

“I keep coming back because I love the garden,” said Kishawra Barrett-Pearson, a 17-year-old Roxbury resident and four-year veteran of the program.

“I do it because I like it and I want to know where my food comes from,” Barrett-Pearson explained. “I like growing stuff, I like getting my hands dirty, and I like making my community better.”

Although the money is a nice motivator, many of the youth said they couldn’t think of a better way to spend the summer.

“I needed a job for the summer and I really wanted to do something that involved the outdoors,” said Zannatul Zannat, a 15-year-old Roxbury resident. “I like knowing where my food comes from, which we learned here; we also had a lot of fun.”

Others saw it as a opportunity to do something unique.

“I saw this as a chance to do something I have never done before,” said Jamison Gaston, a 17-year-old Dorchester resident. “I learned a lot here about plants, but also about what is in my food. You could say I left here with a lot of food for my brain.”

Whether they are there for the money or there for the community, the youth are making an impact, especially with their bi-weekly deliveries of fresh produce to the BMC pantry.

“I wake up and come here because I want to support the garden,” said Barrett-Pearson. “The fact that you can’t get fresh food everywhere is crazy. Everybody should have access to fresh foods.”

For more pictures of the garden and the youth who tend to it, click here.

Email Patrick D. Rosso, Follow him @PDRosso, or friend him on Facebook.

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