Urban Roots offers opportunity to give back to community

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Unlike the majority of her peers, Eastside Memorial High School sophomore Darriyan Kent wasn’t sleeping off the previous school week on this gray and cloudless Saturday morning. Dressed to work in a worn, gray T-shirt, sweat pants and an orange bandana to hold back her hair, Kent helped plant onion seedlings at a sustainable food farm in East Austin on the biggest volunteer day it’s ever had with approximately 50 people. Kent has spent the last two years volunteering for Urban Roots, a youth development program where she spends her early weekend hours. Encouraging high school student development is precisely what founders Max Elliott and Mike Evans were aiming for when they created the program. “We wanted to combine youth development and agriculture to give back to the community in a powerful way,” Elliott said. Evans came to Austin in 2004 with knowledge of urban farming logistics and youth development from his work with Boston’s Food Project. Elliot, a graduate student in UT’s School of Social Work, brought with him a wealth of practical agricultural know-how through his experience working on several farms in the past decade. The two met while working together at the now-defunct Oasis Farm, their mutual interest in wanting to give back to the community through agriculture bringing them together. Urban Roots uses the elbow grease involved with sustainable agriculture to foster Austin-area teenagers’ personal development and community involvement. Kent, who is an assistant crew leader for the program, is just one of 30 youths who work on the program’s East Austin farmland after school, learning key life skills through the program’s activities and workshops. “You get to develop leadership abilities while getting your hands in the dirt,” said Madison Matthews, Austin High School junior and Urban Roots agriculture intern. “You can see yourself growing with the vegetables.” But Kent sees the program as a safe haven. “It’s my getaway place away from life and the craziness of it,” Kent said. Urban Roots is an example of the Slow Food movement that is becoming a national fad. The trend promotes local small business and advocates consumption of seasonal foods that have been produced organically within the community. Urban Roots donates 40 percent of what it produces to various hunger relief organizations throughout the city. It sells the rest at farmers’ markets, as part of Community Supported Agriculture crop shares and at federally funded Women, Infants and Children centers in Austin’s lower-income areas. The program provides members with a chance to try hard-to-come-by vegetables, fruits and herbs through weekly deliveries of seasonal produce grown by the Urban Roots farm. But Urban Roots provides more than just a place for teens to develop leadership skills and give back to the community. Kyle Shelton, a history graduate student at UT and frequent volunteer, finds that he gets more out of his time at the farm than from other community service efforts. “You feel much more accomplished when you’re done [after a day of volunteering],” he said. “You’re tired at the end of the day, and you can remember exactly what you did to help.” While first-time volunteers shared similar sentiments, they also enjoyed learning about the program itself and the teenagers involved with it. “It was good to hear feedback about what you had done throughout the day,” said Jenna Fahle, a UT nutrition junior and president of the campus’ Slow Food organization. “At the end of the day, we were told that close to 200 pounds of spinach were being donated.” It was also nice to see the faces of their organization, Fahle said. “One of the girls who talked to us was only 15 years old,” she said. “It was amazing to see someone so much younger than me in that kind of leadership role.” Fahle is determined to bring everyone in Slow Food with her the next time she volunteers at Urban Roots.