Project GROWS

Interview by Cory Kuklick
Issue 39 • May 2016 • Verona

What’s the best way to get kids to eat their veggies? As these philanthropic farmers are learning, it may be as simple as letting them grow the plants in the first place.

In order to appreciate the work of Project GROWS, all you need is a look at their numbers. Based in Augusta County, this non-profit 10-acre farm produced 50,000 pounds of food last year and served 3,000 school children through food education and accessibility programs. They hope to reach 5,000 kids in 2016, but the ultimate goal is to feed all 20,000 children in the region. Their current staff headcount: three.

Lindsey Lennon, Jenna Clarke, and Sam Berenstain

“Project GROWS is an educational farm,” said Jenna Clarke, the organization’s interim executive director. “What we do is bring kids out to have hands-on experiences in the garden, so we help connect them to the food that they’re eating. We get them out planting, harvesting, and eating the food that they’re helping to grow. Our mission is to improve the health of children and youth in Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta.”

Project GROWS started as an idea in 2009 following a needs assessment survey by Augusta Health. It found that 57% of adults in the area were overweight or obese, while many other community members suffered from diabetes and chronic health issues. Instead of implementing a short term Band-Aid fix, local stakeholders wanted to create a sustainable initiative that would not only provide healthy food, but educate community members about food sources, starting with children. After several years of planning, they broke ground on the farm in 2012. “We’re hitting health in a lot of different areas,” said Clarke. “We’re connecting kids to food, introducing kids to food, getting them to grow food – kids are three times more likely to eat food if they help at some point in the growing process. Then they’re also getting healthy food. We’re doing farm-to-school tastings, bringing the food they’re growing into the cafeteria. They’re eating it in after school programs.”

When I asked Clarke to describe her average day, she chuckled: there is no typical day on a farm that does so much with such scant resources. Her focus is on grant writing and fundraising, Sam Berenstain is the farm manager, and Lindsay ­­­­­Lennon is the education coordinator. All three staff, however, share the daily responsibilities of keeping the farm running. What sets Project GROWS apart from other local farms, and where they base their mission, is in the education they provide to the community on top of the food they grow. This includes daily field trips for students, as many as 60 at a time, who come to the farm for a tour, tasting, educational exercise in conjunction with their school requirements, and hands-on seed planting sessions.

“They’re really open to trying things,” said Clarke. “People think that kids don’t eat healthy food, but we’ve found the exact opposite to be true. We have them come out, pick some spinach, and eat it. For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve had fresh spinach, so we’ll hear things like, ‘Why does it taste so different than at the grocery store?’”

The recent explosion in local farming – coinciding with the farm-to-table culinary revolution and an increasing awareness of the damage that corporate interests can cause in food production – has allowed for a brief reset of paradigms. Along with providing healthy food, Project GROWS is very much an intersectional organization, working to tackle socioeconomic disadvantages (they accept SNAP benefits at their farmer’s market stand), food access for low-income neighborhoods, and gender norms within the farming community at large. “When I go into an elementary school and it’s Farmer Day, all the kids are dressed up like farmers,” said Clarke. “And when I tell them I’m the farmer that brought the food in, they’ll say, ‘No you’re not, you don’t look like a farmer.’ It’s a much different reception from adults now. In the farmer’s market, there’s a lot of women running the stands, managing the farms, and making deliveries.”

The future for Project GROWS is a balancing act between sustainable growth and lofty goals. The organization is heavily reliant on community members who share their vision and will lend a helping hand at their Thursday volunteer nights. There are also hopes of bringing in more resources to expand their operation. “It’s very challenging,” said Clarke. “Mentally and physically, we’re always trying to figure out how to put all these pieces together and make it fit.” She does note that their small size allows them to react quickly to shifting demands, offering flexibility in how they can best to serve the community.

With only four years of farming operation under their belts, not to mention the spartan resources at their disposal, the output of Project GROWS has been staggering. But for Clarke, Berenstain, and Lennon, the work has hardly begun. Project GROWS is not simply a working farm, but an integral actor in the fight for healthy, sustainable, accessible food. “Our culture is going back to the basics because of how out of control things have gotten with industrial food, not knowing what’s in our food. People are getting sick,” said Clarke. “Both men and women have a role in taking control of our food and knowing what’s in it, providing for our families, and our communities as a whole.”

To find out more about Project GROWS, visit their website at projectgrows.org

Photography by Brandy Somers

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