On summer mornings, high school students in bright green T-shirts gather on Burdsal Parkway north of downtown Indianapolis. While the traffic goes by, they are working on the design and cultivation of a one and a half acre vegetable garden.
There are okra, corn, beans, tomatoes, dill and mint among other vegetables and herbs. In the middle there is a small chicken coop.
While the project will provide fresh food for the neighborhood pantries and increase the biodiversity of the soil, it is also a much-needed social outlet for many young people.
Kenyatta Reed, a 17-year-old with long braided hair and a bright smile, feels attached to the garden for many reasons.
“It’s really for me … the people … you feel at home.
“It’s not just about work. As if it’s fun to be here. And you get paid to be here. So it’s just twice as much fun for me. “
The project is part of a youth development program organized by Groundwork Indy, a non-profit organization that focuses on environmental projects. The program has been running every summer since 2016, and this year a group of students called the Green Team is focusing on the garden.
Teenagers like Reed get paid up to $ 10 an hour. With this money she helps with the family’s bills and to do the shopping herself.
While the youngsters chop wood, plant the landscape, compost and carefully take care of baby plants, they are guided by Phyllis Boyd, the manager of Groundwork Indy. Her earth smeared t-shirt shows that she also works with her hands as she explains the basics of gardening and protecting the environment.
The design of the garden is unconventional. Snake-like paths outlined by tree trunks guide visitors and gardeners so they don’t trample the baby plants. There’s science behind this setup, Boyd explained when she pointed to a tomato plant growing next to basil.
“So here the marigolds and basil protect the tomatoes from nematodes in the soil,” she said. “They are like small worm arthropods that feed on the roots [of tomato plants]. “
Overcoming ecological and social injustice
Boyd draws on history and her expertise as a biologist and landscape architect to teach high school students. Her lessons are not just about how to garden – but also how youth can make real, tangible change.
“And that’s one of the things we love to do, not just include them in the dirty and hard work,” she said. “But let them get involved in the process of how you think and dream about spaces and how you can transform them … so that they can see the full arc of how you as a person can do things in the world.”
For example, Boyd and the teenagers had to test the soil for lead contamination when choosing the spot for the garden. Lead is a poison used in some industries and found in soil, old house paint, and water. It is especially harmful to young children.
This neighborhood is a hotspot for child lead poisoning and elevated lead levels. And the garden soil was no exception – but the Green Team had an efficient solution.
“They bring in lead-free soil and garden with that soil. And that’s what you’re in contact with, not the ground underneath, ”Boyd said.
There are no grocery stores in this area either, which may be one of the reasons it has one of the lowest life expectancies in town. In fact, less than eight miles away in a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood with an abundance of grocery stores and fresh food markets, life expectancy is increasing by more than 11 years.
Boyd said the garden will supply some of its produce to local pantries and neighbors, and potentially sell at the local Riverside Farmers’ Market.
But she doesn’t rely on the products of this garden to alleviate food access problems. It is the youngsters who learn to grow their own food and come into contact with different types of vegetables that could make a difference.
An outlet from the “rigid system”
Katy Hawthorne, a 22-year-old program director, said teens don’t always have a space to try new things and find creative solutions, such as how they are encouraged in the garden.
“You know, a lot of them go to my high school and I know how I fought there,” said Hawthorne.
Hawthorne, who joined the program on a college internship, holds a degree in public health and anthropology from Purdue University. Like many of the young people here, she struggled to find nourishing, safe spaces. In college, she noticed “a difference between day and night” compared to the freedom she had as a high schooler in the neighborhood.
“Only people who don’t let children be children. When they say that downtown schools are run like prisons, I think that is a very serious statement, “said Hawthorne. “The presence of the police and their inability to handle typical children’s activities … it’s just a very rigid system that doesn’t allow creativity, doesn’t allow them to make mistakes and learn from them in valuable ways. ”
She said this garden is a place where the Green Team feels valued and has the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s hope and a respite from a harsh reality that they live day in and day out.
Families wishing to enroll their youth in one of Groundwork Indy’s youth development programs can contact the Organization website and fill out the form. You can also email [email protected] if you have any questions.
This story was made through a partnership between the WFYI and Side Effects Public Media The Indianapolis recorder.