By teaching both kids and parents alike, Tucson Village Farm is planting seeds for the future
When you first enter Tucson Village Farm, a tall pole stacked with thin, hand-painted wooden signs greets you. Each sign is marked with the colorful handprints of the students who created each line, leaving their mark on the farm, on its mission, and on its future. On these brightly painted signs are phrases that add up to a list poem:
Tucson Village Farm (TVF) is a working urban farm built by and for the youth of the community. A program of the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, since its ground breaking in 2010, the farm has exploded with a number of educational outreach programs for youth.
Located at the intersection of River Road and Campbell Avenue, next to the Rillito River Trail, TVF is easy to miss. That is, until you walk into the garden oasis. I’m sitting on a wooden bench, hand-painted to look like a cow, listening to rain pattering on the red tin roof above my head. “Come on, rain!” sings Leza Carter, the Program Coordinator of TVF.
Also nested below the roof with me are Liz Sparks, the 4-H Youth Development Coordinator, and Matthew Lee, an AmeriCorps Volunteer. Liz and Leza have been with the farm since it began. In October 2009, they started with a blank slate. “It was an empty lot; nothing was there. When Liz and I spied it, we were like, ‘Can we have that piece?’ It’s a great location,” says Leza. In January of 2010, they broke ground.
TVF is changing the way kids see food through the farm’s many programs. One program, Growing Forward, is a two-hour long hands-on workshop for K-12 students that cycles students through the various “stations” of the farm. There are stations for cooking, composting, and digging, among others. But perhaps the largest station of all is what TVF is all about: the garden. It’s there in the garden that students get hands-on experience in gardening and harvesting, where they learn about pollination and soil science.
For older kids, there’s also the Counselor in Training program, comprised of middle and high school students who are trained in areas that TVF teaches on the farm, from growing fruits and vegetables to composting, setting up irrigation systems, and preparing food.
Matthias Pollock, a former graduate student in the UA’s College of Public Health, conducted research to evaluate the effectiveness of TVF’s programs. His findings were significant: After kids came to a single two-hour field trip program, their fruit and vegetable intake increased 110 percent. “This is not just some cute little program for kids; it’s actually working,” says Liz. In fact, Liz points out that last year, from late August until May, a whopping 12,879 youth and adults visited the garden.
What distinguishes TVF from other community gardens is that “90 percent of what is growing now on the farm has been planted by kids,” says Leza. Seventy-five percent of the schools and youth that they serve are from low-income schools and neighborhoods.
Other TVF programs include U-Pick Tuesdays, where staff and volunteers sell the food from the garden at market prices. And since TVF is a non-profit, all of the proceeds go towards programming, youth conferences, and scholarships for youth to attend TVF’s annual summer camp in June.
Through its many programs, TVF continues to expand its reach. The farm is currently partnering with 83 different community organizations and local businesses, showing that there are a variety of different ways to encourage kids to eat healthy foods. And people—like the First Lady—are catching onto their programs. That’s right: Michelle Obama is a fan of TVF. “One of her reps from the White House called us a year ago, two years into our program, and invited us to meet and greet her at the Tucson airport,” says Leza. Leza and Liz gathered many of their young farmers and volunteers, who all got to meet her. “She’s a big supporter of programs like ours,” adds Leza.
In addition to a healthy backbone of staff and volunteers, TVF couldn’t do what they do without their team of AmeriCorps volunteers. “It’s great working here because you can help out with any program you want, and also start your own programs,” says Matthew Lee, one of four AmeriCorps volunteers serving on the farm. “It’s not work; it’s enjoyment. I often work overtime because it’s so much fun.”
One of the students that Matthew taught at last June’s summer camp was 12-year-old Emmy Davis. In the week-long camp, Emmy tells me that she did a variety of activities. She did scavenger hunts and played in a harvest lottery; she winnowed and threshed wheat, made bread and participated in a series of eye-opening science experiments. She describes an experiment in which she measured out the amount of shortening that was in a bag of French fries. She scooped up five spoonfuls, piling them on top of a hamburger bun. “There was this big mountain of shortening on the hamburger bun,” she says, disgusted. “It was gross; it made me not want to eat French fries as much anymore.”
Another fun activity was the Tastebud Exploration, in which Emmy and the rest of the campers got to try a variety of exotic fruits and vegetables like dragon fruit, banana flowers, nasturtiums, raw coconut, and bok choy. “My favorite was the dragon fruit,” she says, smiling. Her least favorite? The nasturtiums and the banana flowers because they were “very spicy and bitter, which was gross,” she says. Emmy’s favorite food ever? “Avocados,” she answers in a beat. “I think avocados are amazingness.”
Back at the farm, Leza shows me the most exciting part: the garden. In her tour, she points out what’s growing: tomatoes, basil, peppers, cucumbers, corn, squash, eggplant, sweet potatoes, tepary beans, amaranth, herbs, and purslane. Looking at all these beauties, I have the sudden urge to pick and eat them. I feel like that bunny in the Trix commercial, as if I grabbed something, some kid would pop out of the corn stalks and yell, “Silly Rabbit. Trix are for kids!” Except, of course, these Trix are actually vegetables. Except, of course, I’m actually not a rabbit. “I love it when a kid pulls a carrot out of the ground for the first time,” says Leza. “They might as well be pulling a rabbit out of a hat; some have never seen it before.”
Leza takes me over to one of her favorite parts of the garden; it’s a small plot called the “Soup Pot.” This space is reserved for the Owl and Panther Project, a group that helps relocated refugee families who have been affected by trauma and torture. Leza asked the group of refugees what kinds of vegetables they put in the soup in their home countries, and then they planted those vegetables in the “pot.” This winter, the group that came planted veggies like broccoli, kale, chard, onions, cilantro, garlic, and carrots, all in that small plot. When the group returned in March, they harvested all of the crops in their plot and brought them to their weekly gathering, where they made soup that fed 35 people, including Leza. Afterwards, they had 10 resuable shopping bags filled with leftover produce lined up at the door to go home with the families. As Leza recalls this story, it’s clear just how passionate and proud she is of this program. “These are kids and parents who are displaced and living in urban apartment complexes without yards or gardens,” she says. “It’s a chance for them to get their hands down in the soil again, like many of them they did in their home countries.”
After the grand garden tour, Leza has to hurry off. The rain starts drizzling again. I’m about to leave when Matthew returns. Handing me some gardening shears and an empty paper bag, he says, “You should grab some veggies before you leave.” The rabbit in me jumps at the chance. My beauteous bounty? Three eggplants, two peppers, and a handful of sweet basil. I hop away happily.
For more information, visit TucsonVillageFarm.org. 4210 N. Campbell Ave., 520.626.5161. ✜
Allie Leach works and writes in Tucson.