Roots to Harvest Urban Youth Farming Program

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Author: Josie Di Felice

Posted: October 17, 2014

Categories: Edible Education Network / Edible Education Project Profiles

Roots to HarvestRoots to Harvest is a non-profit based out of Thunder Bay that aims to provide transformative educational opportunities for youth who face barriers (whether they’re academic, social, or economic), doing so through engagement with local agriculture to cultivate healthy communities.

Simply put, they use food as a tool to connect with and empower youth. With programs year-round evolving as needed, they work toward this mission and switch gears between the summer months and school year.

Last month they switched back into school mode for their in-class programming that works with workplace and applied level high school classes on ongoing food projects, facilitating the ‘Farm to Caf’ program, which brings local food into a number of Thunder Bay schools, working with teachers and students to prep the high school gardens for winter, and coordinating the building of two high school greenhouses this fall.

We spoke with Executive Director, Erin Beagle, in more depth about the Roots to Harvest powerful summer program, an Urban Youth Farming Project. This program employs a variety of youth from all walks of life, with a focus on supporting marginalized youth, to work on the Roots to Harvest urban farm in downtown Thunder Bay and other farms across the city. The program has provided a valuable platform for the kids to learn lifelong skills, make meaningful connections and gain confidence. And though the program is clearly about the kids, the food, farming, gardens and positive community impact are a significant bonus.

The youth involved usually have zero experience in gardening and farming when they begin, and they come out of the program after 6 weeks not just with these hands-on skills, but with a number of life-changing ones. For most of them it is a first job experience, so the opportunity offers them skill building, job readiness and the confidence needed to grow into a young adult. As a paid job, with wages 100% subsidized from the Ministry of Youth and Children Services through a local employment agency, they learn the value of themselves and their hard work.

This past summer, the program employed 10 individuals between 15-18 years old for 6 weeks, with 4 program staff facilitating the summer experience. A typical week sees them at their urban garden site 2 days a week taking care of the farm, while the rest of the week they are working with partner farms on whatever work is needed – working in pastures, digging out barns, weeding, caring for animals, etc. The intention is for the farmers to work alongside the youth as a mentor and for the youth to contribute meaningfully to the success of the farm.

After 7 successful years of the summer program, Roots to Harvest developed another program to continue throughout the school year September through May called the Academic Year Program (AYP). AYP serves as an anchor to the positive experience the youth had during the summer program and also builds on the skills and mentorship relationships they began in the summer. During a 6-to-9 hour week, the participants work on onetime and ongoing projects such as seed saving, farm work, preparing dinners at shelters, processing and storing garden harvests and working with the community during events. Being able to continue with the same youth from the summer program allows them to continue on with the important connections they have made, and continue the transition to job readiness for the youth. Six out of the 10 summer students stayed on for this school year.

The Academic Year Program is modelled after the Food Project in Boston, and the wages are funded through the municipal District Social Services Administration Board. The funding to allow for paid employment is crucial, as it demonstrates to the students that they have value in the workforce and for many of the youth who work with Roots to Harvest, earning a wage allows them to help financially support their families.

It’s clear that Roots to Harvest and their staff are dedicated to the youth as their main priority, supporting them in every way they can and trying to truly make it a transformative experience for them. Adding AYP after the summer has helped in fulfilling this goal.Roots to Harvest II

There is also a strong impact reflected through the community from the program, bringing people together, feeding residents, benefiting nearby spaces, offering assistance to farmers, all while creating an inclusive space for the community. (There is a retired gentleman, for instance, who offers his hard work and skills by voluntarily working on the same garden as the kids, from mowing to maintenance.)

Supporting food literacy, growing food, encouraging marginalized youth, and offering a positive space for everyone — the project’s benefits are endless. It is a perfect demonstration of dedicated work toward a specific goal having many other positive impacts; when you work to grow and support one part of a community, it can’t help but spread.

And while the program grows gardens and food for the community, it is a clear, strong growing process for the youth involved too.

Q&A with Roots to Harvest

How is your program funded?

  • Roots to Harvest’s main funding comes from the Ontario Trillium Foundation presently, with many other grants, partnerships and contracts coming in to fill out the resources required to run the program.
  • The youth wages for the Urban Summer Youth Farm Program are funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, through a partnership with a local Employment agency.
  • The Academic Year Program is funded through the District Social Services Administration Board.
  • Some staff wages are funded through NOHFC and Canada Summer Jobs.

How did you engage with supporters and the community?

Connecting with a variety of partners and stakeholders is imperative. Mutually-beneficial relationships can be created – search for people and organizations to work with where you can align your mandates.There are opportunities all over for numerous parties to benefit.

  • We’ve gained many champions for our summer program – the program has demonstrated great potential that many have taken interest in.
  • For our Summer Program we’ve had the municipality come in as great support; the garden is on private land so we’re constantly balancing that relationship while also negotiating with the municipality
  • We’ve partnered with the city on many things such as land and markets – a stable and a mobile market where kids set up and sell veggies; we worked with public transit to do this, the relationship with the city has been fantastic
  • Our farm partners are also critical – we deal with a variety of kids, and these farmers become great mentors so this has been really important and has created a strong work ethic to pass on to the kids
  • We connected with farmers we already knew or knew of – finding farmers that have time, some are farms and some are homesteads
  • We’ve also partnered with an aboriginal daycare to use their van during the summer when they are not using it, at no cost a few times a week
  • Working with others is critical – for instance, with urban gardening there are all sorts of things to consider, such as no washrooms being onsite; we have partnered with the businesses around us to open up their doors
  • Establish the value of your program to your community – once your value is apparent people are happy to help and be involved

Case For Support Tips

  • Keep in mind (and in your language) how you can benefit who you are working with.
  • Know who you’re speaking to and make the case in terms that appeal to them.
  • We are always thinking: What is the benefit for the community to have our space here? If we demonstrate this it makes our job easier.
  • For instance, we want the city to own the space we’re on (rather than it being privately-owned); We’ll demonstrate what we do for the community: poverty reduction, neighbourhood resilience, beautification, etc — tie it back into their strategic plan

What tips do you have for others doing this kind of initiative?

  • Make sure your mandate is always in line with what you’re working on – the kids are our main focus. Our aim is broader than just about the food.
  • Be prepared to work hard.
  • Don’t get discouraged – people always say to us: “it’s going to get vandalized”

We know it probably will a little bit, but just a little. In urban gardening/farming we don’t have major pests or deer, we have people who sometimes make poor choices that negatively affect the garden spaces and that’s the trade-off for being in the city. But the more we make our spaces look amazing and cared for, the less they get touched. It almost never happens.

We work closely with 4 public high schools with school gardens, and not one of them got vandalized all summer. Don’t let these remarks make you not take action. This stuff happens and it doesn’t outweigh the good that will come from your hard work.

What was one of the biggest challenges you’ve come up against and how did you address it?

Sustainability is a big challenge for us; we would like to be more self-sustainable. We work towards this through our important partnerships. For instance, we’ve tied ourselves with school boards closely; we write grants for school boards to partner in with them. We’ve partnered regionally, with FoodShare, with EcoSource, and we partner in on other different grants (as a ‘northern’ partner).

  • We’ve also expanded on areas to bring money in with a social enterprise aim- selling granola, apple cider, honey; community workshops.
  • We’ve started dividing our services a bit too into ones that support our mandate with resources, and ones that we don’t generate revenue on but that fulfill our mandate.
  • Expanding and partnering is critical, find different opportunities.
  • It’s not about just following the money, stay true to your mandate.

What factors were critical for your success?

  • Transparency – in your intentions, with partners, why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  • Meet everyone you work with and make strong connections (cafeteria staff, school boards) and translate language to the people you’re working with.
  • Pace – this can also be a challenge, but try and grow at a pace you can sustain.

Program Impacts

  • We see positive impacts from our programs every day. The kids learn food skills, get job experience and gain confidence (ie. We don’t make much money from the vegetables at our mobile market, but the kids sell to adults and they gain positive relationships, they learn to make eye contact and gain confidence)
  • Food security: people feed families from our site
  • The ethnic community gains a lot out of the space from food we grow
  • The community impact is huge: it brings people together that work as a team, that didn’t previously know each other
  • We’ve created a welcoming, open space that is inclusive, for people with secure to low incomes, from the older to the younger generations
  • The beautiful, positive space is also beneficial to nearby spaces/businesses

A summer intern from this year, Alena, shared: “I wasn’t really sure what to expect other than weeding (haha). I knew that we would be doing a lot of work with the community, but was pleasantly surprised with day trips to farms and two market days in the week. I am learning a lot more than I thought I would originally and loving it more and more each day. And that’s not to say there isn’t challenges, as the job is demanding physically. But I am not afraid of getting my hands dirty, it is the social involvement that is a challenge for me. Roots to Harvest is helping me to get out of my comfort zone and talk to people that I may have never gotten the chance to had I not taken this summer job.”


Contact for this profile:
Erin Beagle
Roots to Harvest, Executive Director



This profile is part of a series of profiles for the Ontario Edible Education Network.
Be sure to check out more profiles from the Network here!