Michelle Lewis, a Carroll County Extension Service agent, started the Youth Garden Project, as a pilot program, this past spring to help kids ages 12-17 have a better understanding of their food and its origins. During their participation in the program, the youths plan a garden, grow their own vegetables and then prepare a meal, using food from their garden.
“This program is really dear to my heart because so much of my work is involved with what children eat,” Lewis said. “They are so far removed from what they eat.”
She said the idea for the project came last fall when she was asked by Vickie Fulbright of the Youth Connection if some of the group’s participants could do their community service work at the county Ag Center on Newnan Road in Carrollton. Lewis said the suggestion was that they could help pull some weeds or pick up trash.
“I wanted to come up with a program where they could learn something,” Lewis said. “I thought it would be good if they could create their own gardens, learn where food comes from and how to cook it.”
So Lewis designed the Youth Garden Project and was able to fund it with a grant from Master Gardeners.
“April 7 was our first day,” she said. “A bus, with six youths from Youth Connection and the Department of Juvenile Justice, arrived here. Most of the kids in the program have done some minor offenses, none are felons. They just made some bad choices and needed to do community service.”
She said some of the first day’s work was spent at the Master Gardeners’ building, which is used during Heritage Days. Helping out with the program were two interns from University of West Georgia and a Master Gardener volunteer, who enjoys working with youth.
The kids began learning how to design and build their own garden plots, she said.
“I taught them how to square off the area for the garden into a 12-by-12-foot space,” she said. “Within that area, there were four 4-by-4-foot plots.”
She said some of the kids were not familiar with folding rules and tape measures and had to be taught how to use them to measure off distances.
“I told them, ‘This is your garden and your project,’” she said. “They asked if they could name them (the individual plots) and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ They chose the names, Flintstone, Indian, Bedrock and T.”
Lewis said the youth also jointly created a herb garden, in addition to their individual plots.
The kids laid out the rows, planted the seeds and weeded the plots. Eventually, harvest time came around.
“The very first vegetable out of the garden was a radish,” Lewis said. “One girl asked what we were going to do with it. I asked her if she liked radishes and she said, ‘No.’ It had dirt on it, so she washed it off. She tasted it, then ate it all.”
The big day came on July 22 when the group had “Pizza Day.” They used vegetables from their gardens to bake individual pizzas.
“All the produce came from their gardens,” Lewis said. “They used their vegetables for toppings and their herbs. The ingredients were supplemented with some tomatoes and peppers from the inmate garden. Everything, the crust and all, were made from scratch.”
But the project doesn’t just involve working in the gardens. The group also takes field trips to learn about various kinds of food. One such journey was to the goat farm at the Capra Gia Cheese Company on Shady Grove Road, near Carrollton.
“They had an opportunity to feed and milk the goats and make cheese,” Lewis said. A similar trip to an alpaca farm is being planned for this fall.
Lewis said what pleases her the most about the project is that it’s working.
“We had a couple of youth, who completed their community service, and asked to come back as volunteers,” she said. “That totally made my day.”
Lewis hopes the project can be expanded locally and maybe used as a model for other counties to start similar programs. Most of all, she loves that it’s making a difference in the youths’ lives.
“These are good kids,” she said. “They just got into trouble because they had too much time on their hands.”
Lewis said an entry in one boy’s journal, which all keep as part of the program, brought tears to her eyes.
“This has changed my life,” he wrote of the project. “I’m making new friends.”