Written by Hanna Lee
Five years ago, Max Elliott joined the Austin, TX based YouthLaunch to spearhead an afterschool gardening project at a local middle school. YouthLaunchâs mission is to create programs that engage young people through service-oriented projects with the belief that service is a powerful and effective strategy for positive development. After working at the middle school for a year, Elliott discovered young peopleâs enthusiasm for farming.
âWe realized kids really like to grow food and cook it,â recalls Elliott. âI told YouthLaunch that if they were serious about pursuing a farming program we could explore the urban farm model and create a youth development program centered on it.â
Growing up in Shreveport, LA, Elliott was surrounded by acres of cotton, soybean and cornfields. It wasnât until his 20s that Elliot was first exposed to sustainability when he taught 2nd grade at a Mexican bi-lingual school. He naturally gravitated towards outdoor education because he loved the idea of educating and exposing kids to their own environment.
He earned a Masterâs Degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Essex in Colchester, England. Later, in 1999, he received a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Elliott knew he wanted to combine working with youth with his newfound passion: âFor me, working on a farm, with animals, food and youth is a marriage of what I like to do,â he explains. âIt is teaching by doing,â
Elliott and YouthLaunch spent a year researching other youth development farming programs, speaking to local farm educators, and community activists from all over the country. With the support of the community and East Austin schools, Elliot and YouthLaunch created Urban Roots. The organizationâs goal is to engage under-served youth to grow food, provide opportunities to serve others, and educate the community about the value of healthy lifestyles. The program provides paid internships to Austin teenagers. They hire 24 youth Farm Interns, three youth Assistant Crew Leaders, and three youth Agriculture interns to work for the upcoming program year.
In the programâs first year, 15 teenagers tended one acre of land and grew 15,000 lbs of produce. Now in itâs fourth year, Urban Roots has doubled in size and farms 3.5 acres of land to grow 32,000 lbs of produce. The program donates 40% of their produce to local soup kitchens/food pantries and sells the rest at farmers’ markets and farm stands in Austin. During the 25-week spring and summer program, youth gets essential life and job skills while growing food for the community. Additionally, Urban Roots provides a variety of workshops in order to ensure a well-rounded education on food, agriculture, and serving the community.
Elliott explains the diversity of the workshops and how they incorporate life and job skills through the urban farming model. As a part of the program, Urban Roots offers public speaking, reflective journaling and identity workshops.
âWe want to teach these kids about more than farming,â explains Elliott. âWe prepare them so that they know themselves better and can articulate their experience in the program.â
In addition to sustainable farming skills, Urban Roots teaches skills in money management and customer service that are used at the farmerâs market as well as cooking techniques to provide a healthier lifestyle. Most importantly, the program provides awareness on hunger relief to inspire participants to give back to the community through soup kitchens and food pantries.
Elliot views Urban Roots as an endlessly rewarding profession. He is consistently amazed watching the youths become empowered through the Urban Roots experience. âAt first, they are shy and not very interactive with their peers, and are afraid of bugs and getting dirty,â reflects Elliot. âBut over those 25 weeks outdoors they bond with each other and take ownership of the farm.â
The youth give tours, harvest produce and try fresh vegetables right from the ground. At the end of the year, they put their knowledge from the public speaking workshops into action and discuss their experiences. Elliot exemplifies the power of the program through a participant he remembers fondly. âAt one of our community lunches, she talked about how she grew as a person and as a public speaker. She said, âIf you told me 2 months ago that Iâd be speaking to 50 people on this farm I wouldnât believe you.â Seeing them empowered really keeps us all going. â
Elliot recognizes itâs easy to become paralyzed towards action when you think about the bigger picture. âQuestions of how can I make a difference or how to solve hunger are overwhelming,â says Elliot. âThatâs why I encourage people to get their hands in the soil or feed people at a food kitchen; throw yourself in there. The best way to understand the complexity and the largeness of an issue is to put your head down and work together to affect change.â
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