Program also helps children respect environment
On an overcast Wednesday in July, in the back lawn of Mason Community Learning Center, the children of the City Sprouts program were busy at work gardening. Despite the not so cheerful weather, the young gardeners were enthusiastic and having fun digging in the dirt as they tended to the plants they have grown themselves this summer.
City Sprouts is described by program director Karen Edwards as “a children’s gardening and healthy living program.” She says, “I teach them how to grow food, but I also teach them about earth sustainability, recycling, reducing the use of water, healthy eating, [and] exercise. I’ve gardened my whole life, and I raised my kids this way, so it was just a natural fit for me to teach other people to do this.”
Edwards started the program six years ago with her friend Tom Crain, another visible sustainability advocate in the community, so that children could learn how to live healthier lifestyles. She says, “A lot of these children in urban neighborhoods don’t have access to fresh healthy food. We grow organically, and organic food is very difficult to come by for many families. I teach them how to do it so they can either have what’s here or they can help their parents at home, and when they’re adults they’ll know how to do this.”
The children in the program range in age from 7 to 12. and on this particular day, a group of eight, along with a few teen supervisors, worked out in the garden patches, which were full of growing vegetables including okra and eggplant. The young people enthusiastically weeded the beds with small trowels and rakes.
When asked about her favorite plant, Arianna, 10, replies with enthusiasm, “The strawberry patch!” City Sprouts assistant Julia Edwards told me that the strawberry patch was an all-around favorite for all the students, who got to eat the berries they had grown themselves. Edwards, 20, has assisted her mother, Karen, for four years, helping to teach arts and crafts and corralling children in the garden.
The garden was dug and planted from scratch this summer by the students. “The kids do all the work. I show them what to do, and they do the work,” says Julia Edwards. “They’re really amazing. In fact we went to the University of Akron’s Nutrition Program yesterday, and they have gardens, and it was so cute because these students were trying to teach my kids how to garden, and the kids were like ‘Oh no, we got this, we know exactly what to do.’”
City Sprouts works with about 15 students from Mason CLC and about 50 at Lawton Street Community Center, and the program is expected to expand to a third group of students at Crouse CLC. All of these areas are known as local food deserts, meaning many residents here do not have immediate access to healthy organic food.
City Sprouts operates through community centers’ summer camps for children, and Edwards moves from place to place throughout the week teaching.
Rachel Jewell, a summer camp supervisor from the City of Akron, says that the City Sprouts program gives these children a sense of responsibility, community and accomplishment from watching food they’ve planted grow, in addition to building friendships.
“These are things they take into adulthood,” she says. The Mason summer camp children do other activities apart from City Sprouts, including community service and field trips, with the similar goal of bettering themselves and their community.
The program’s importance, says Julia Edwards, lies in inner city children getting the chance to understand where fresh food comes from, “especially since it’s hard to get in the city.”
She says that the program teaches the young people how to help and serve the community, be kind to others, and live a healthy lifestyle.
Olivia Crain, 17, another assistant, has helped out at the program for three years and loves getting to know the children and seeing them learn. Crane says of the kids, “before, they didn’t know the difference between grass and weeds,” and that through City Sprouts they’ve gained much more knowledge.
Arts and crafts are another part of the program, and aims to teach the children about recycling. After finishing the day’s work in the garden, the students head inside to hear Edwards read a book about Johnny Appleseed and how he planted apple trees all over the country. Using the theme of seeds, the group started the day’s craft of making “seed bombs” out of old newspapers and sunflower seeds. The seed bombs were small gray balls of seeds help together by newspaper, which will break down and let the seeds grow—“it looks like chocolate goo!” shrieks one student.
After they’re dry, Edwards tells the students to plant them at home, or throw them in a vacant lot to “decorate East Akron with sunflowers.”
Anas and Anaya, both 8, say that their favorite craft project they’ve done this summer was making brightly colored fake flowers out of old plastic bottles and straws. “Did you learn about recycling?” I ask. “Of course!” replies Anas as he rips up newspapers for the seed bombs, “That’s what we’re doing right now!
Growing food is the main activity of City Sprouts, but along the way, the young gardeners learn to be respectful of the Earth and their communities. Edwards says the focus of the program is “community and family responsibility,” and to teach children that “whenever we make something, we make it with the idea that it’s a gift.”
Edwards says the program figuratively plants “seeds” of ideas, teaching children to better the environment by recycling and reducing their carbon footprint, but also bettering themselves and their communities. She says, “healthy living is being good to yourself and your neighbors.”
City Sprouts can be found on Facebook.