How Motivated Kids and Better Food Access Fit Together
26 Michigan Ave. E
Battle Creek, Michigan 49017
At Sprout Urban Farms in Battle Creek, kids grow produce for a mobile food hub, which transports fresh food to neighborhoods that are lacking.
Devon Wilson says he is certain he will pursue farming, at least in some form, when he graduates from West Michigan Virtual Academy
. The 17-year-old from Battle Creek may be young, but he is passionate and he is focused when it comes to urban farming and food education, and he says that Sprout Urban Farms
played a big part in that decision.
“I think it’s a really positive action, teaching kids and growing all-natural food in low-income communities and giving it to people who don’t have access to that kind of food,” Wilson says.
He is a protégé of the Sprout Urban Farms internship program called the GreenFist Project
, which was first established in June 2011 when Sprout received a grant from the Fair Food Network
The grant not only made the program possible, but also made Sprout an officially recognized entity. Prior to that, the
"Our goal was just to get a diverse cross-section of the city; we weren’t taking family income or anything into consideration – we wanted to have kids from families with all levels of income working together," Andrews says.
organization was a loosely structured and entirely volunteer driven effort born from the unexpected interest of nearly 100 Battle Creek residents on a snowy evening in 2009.
“It’s not like the Beatles were playing,” says Jeremy Andrews, CEO of Sprout. “We were just getting together to talk about urban farming, which sounds sweet to me, but I know it doesn’t sound sweet to everybody.”
In its first year of unofficial operations, Sprout helped to establish 14 community gardens and, after receiving the Fair Food Network grant, was able to hire 15 young people through the GreenFist Project to expand work in community and urban gardening.
Sprout used Facebook, email blasts, community organizations, churches, neighborhood associations, and existing community leadership networks to reach out to a diverse group of area youth.
“Our goal was just to get a diverse cross-section of the city; we weren’t taking family income or anything into consideration – we wanted to have kids from families with all levels of income working together,” Andrews says. “I still believe that’s the way to make the world a better place… to take everybody and have them working together in the same job, getting to know each other.”
Since then, Sprout has tripled its property in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood, having built a hoop house and greenhouse arboretum. What’s grown here helps to supply food sold through the Farmer’s Market mobile “food hub.”
The importance of Sprout’s function is, in some ways, a derivative of its location in the Washington Heights neighborhood, which Andrews says is one of the city’s biggest food deserts – areas that where residents have little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. All of the five U.S. Census Bureau tracts classified as food deserts in Calhoun County are located in Battle Creek.
Meredith Freeman, program director for Fair Food Network, says that Sprout is one of the largest growing organizations working to alleviate food inequality in Battle Creek, acting as a role model and catalyst for an emerging food movement in the city.
The importance of Sprout's function is, in some ways, a derivative of its location in the Washington Heights neighborhood, which Andrews says is one of the city’s biggest food deserts – areas that where residents have little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“They’re selling at the farmers market, they’re selling to institutions like the Firekeepers Casino as well as through mobile markets,” Freeman says. “They’re providing internships and job opportunities for youth. They’ve grown by leaps and bounds in terms of the growing and production in Battle Creek.”
Sprout and its GreenFist interns are putting most of the operational focus on the mobile food hub and getting good produce to residents who would otherwise be out of reach.
“It’s a place of aggregation, distribution, and then community food support,” he says. “Not only do we aggregate other farmers’ vegetables and distribute them, we grow our own, and we support community gardens, farm-to-school operations, and new food businesses.”
Farm-to-school is Sprout’s latest focus, engaging students in the food system through a hands-on, educational experience. Depending on the grade level and school district, Andrews is helping students in Battle Creek learn how to write grants, laying the groundwork for new environmental sciences courses, and partnering with for-profit, nonprofit and government run organizations to teach youth about all aspects of a food system.
That kind of education is transformative for some students. At least, it was for Devon Wilson. Though the farm-to-school initiative is too recent for Wilson to have been a part of, he is a product of empowerment through education.
“I found out about how they were spraying crops and all of these different genetically modified ways they were producing food,” Wilson says. ”I also found out how the food we eat a lot of the time isn’t really even that nutritious for us. It’s getting harvested in California days or weeks before its ripened to its full potential and put on a truck and shipped all of the way up here to Michigan.”
“It made me want to get involved and do it myself and be able to take pride in what I eat,” he said.
Like all new things, his spot on the GreenFist team took some getting used to at first, but he says he likes connecting with like-minded peers and learning through hands-on experience.
“I kind of just fell in love with it right away,” Wilson says. “I just love doing it. I have to wake up early in the morning, and I still love doing it.”
And for a 17-year-old, waking up with the sun is a true mark of dedication.