North Carolina: Growing Life-Skills in the Garden

Most treehuggers will be keenly aware of the benefits of community gardens. Particularly in built-up urban areas, these spaces can provide valuable wildlife habitat, allowing inner-city residents an opportunity to connect with nature and explore the world around them. Many also serve as an important source of fresh, local food, reminding children and adults alike where their food comes from. SEEDS (South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces), a non-profit based in Durham, North Carolina, provides all these services and more. Through its DIG program (Durham Inner-City Gardeners), the organization provides valuable jobs and training, as well as nutritional and social education to teenagers as an alternative to the more common summer job option of working in the retail and/or fast-food industries. DIG is a youth-based market farm business with the stated aim of empowering young adults through learning about sustainable, chemical-free gardening, healthy business practices and responsible leadership. The youngsters, ranging in age from 14 to 18, go through an interview process and are expected to sign a contract and commit to the regular work hours. They work every Monday and Wednesday morning in the summer, plus Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, sometimes arriving as early as 6am to harvest and prepare for market. In return they are given a modest wage, and training in horticulture, marketing, business and leadership skills. Produce from the program, including fresh salad greens, garlic, tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, collard greens, as well as non-edible produce such as cut flowers and potted plants, is sold through the farmers market, as well as to local restaurants and businesses. Participants are encouraged to take on and develop their own projects — Nate, one of the DIG crew, is this year growing lavender, basil and other herbs for sale to a local frozen popsicle-making business.

As with most inner-city areas the world over, crime, poverty and addiction are a problem in North-East Central Durham, and DIG provides a vital outlet for young people. DIG participants learn to work together as a team, building their horticultural, business and social skills and, consequently, their self-esteem. As Earl Matlock, one of the DIG coordinators, puts it: "We grow some pretty good food around here but I think we do pretty well at growing some positive young adults too."

[Written by: Sami Grover]

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