Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to an amazing group of 12 to 14 year old adolescents--these kids are Montessori school students who came together to talk about ways to make the food system more just and environmentally sustainable.
Talking with youth is one of the best parts of the work that Ellen Gustafson and I do as the co-founders of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank--it's young people who are making real change in creating innovations to help alleviate hunger, obesity, and poverty while also protecting the environment. And their energy and commitment to making the food system better is forcing the rest of us to change with them!
Here are some groups and individuals we've discovered who are helping to make agriculture an economically and intellectually attractive career option for youth.
1. Project DISC or Developing Innovations in School Cultivation. In Uganda, agriculture is often an option of last resort for youth--they feel forced into farming if they do not do well in school or have enough money to go to university. As a result, many young people look down on farming.
Project DISC--Developing Innovations in School Cultivation--was founded to reignite an interest in and a taste for Indigenous foods in Uganda. The project works with Slow Food International to develop school garden projects and to help students recognize the importance of local foods for not only the nutrition they provide, but also for their economic value.
2. Growing Power. The organization Growing Power is finding ways to give opportunities to young people by growing food in the places we might least expect--under-served and low-income urban areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that around 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in areas without access to fruits and vegetables and other healthy food. Growing Power is working in 7 states across the country to bring urban farming practices and fresh, healthy food into these areas. Their work in Milwaukee and Chicago includes programs that specifically target young people aged 10 to 18, teaching them about organic agriculture, as well as leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
3. In the United States some of the most exciting innovations in preventing food waste are happening on college campuses. Students are questioning how much food their catering facilities throw away each day.
The Food Recovery Network is a network of student groups who were tired of seeing food wasted at their colleges and universities. They recover food from cafeterias or campus events and then distribute it homeless shelters and other organizations. And when food can't be recovered, it's collected for compost to nourish school gardens.
4. The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) is harnessing the expertise of young researchers and entrepreneurs in colleges and universities across the world.
Through their Young Earth Solutions, or BCFN YES! Project, they're encouraging students under 30 to submit their ideas on the question of how to make the food system more environmentally sustainable. Last year's winner is Federica Marra, who is working to improve urban agriculture and prevent food waste in cities across Europe, and she'll have the opportunity to implement her project with BCFN over the next year.
5. Food Corps enlists young leaders to work in communities across the country to teach kids more healthy eating habits through engaging them in school garden projects.
This project, which is like an agricultural Peace Corps program, helps elementary school kids in under-served communities not only learn how to eat better, but they learn how to see food differently. In addition to gardening skills, kids also learn how to prevent obesity, diabetes, and other health problems through their diets--and they're spreading that knowledge to their parents and communities.
6. Nearly every farmer I met with in sub-Saharan Africa had a cell phone or had access to a cell phone. And these farmers are not only using them to communicate with another, but also to find information about weather or markets or to make banking and financial transactions. For youth, the technology can also be a way to learn about different agricultural innovations.
In Kenya, an organization called ShujaazFM is distributing a monthly comic book by cell phone, as well as in print. The group also produces a daily radio program and is working on an animated version. Food and agriculture issues are a big part of the organization's work, including guides for preparing certain foods and discussing issues such as vaccinating chickens against Newcastle disease. The team is also set up to receive feedback via text message from listeners and readers across the country.
These examples show how agriculture's reputation is changing--farmers and scientists and government leaders from Africa to the United States are realizing that agriculture can be the answer to some of our most pressing environmental and social challenges. Most importantly, youth are becoming a huge part of the solution.
These sorts of innovations make agriculture something that youth want to do, not something they're forced to do because they don't have opportunities.
Agriculture can provide the economic and intellectual opportunities and excitement that have been missing in rural areas of both developing and industrialized countries.