Kids at the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville, Maine are getting their hands dirty in the Center’s Growing Dome Greenhouse and garden, cultivating healthy lifestyles and inspiring their families to follow suit. In the state’s largest afterschool program, The Alfond Youth Center hosts more than 200 underserved kids each day, 85 percent of whom are food insecure. But, at Alfond, fresh, healthy food is abundant. The Center features a Growing Dome Greenhouse and outdoor gardens that immerse kids in a complete fresh fruit and vegetable experience, exposing them to the joys of fresh produce from seed to stomach.
The Growing Dome Greenhouse and gardens are supported by partners, including United Fresh Produce Association member Backyard Farms and the United Fresh Start Foundation, which provided the Center with a Community Grant.
After school and during the summer, the kids at Alfond plant and nurture fresh fruit and vegetables— a new experience for 80 percent of them. The children relish in discovering (and eating) new varieties of traditional produce, including 20 kinds of tomato plants, eight varieties of peppers, seven kinds of radishes, and more.
“The kids didn’t know carrots could be anything but orange,” says Mike Owens, Alfond’s Garden Coordinator. “When they start picking red, white, and yellow carrots out from the garden, it’s exciting and unique.”
They also have pride in what they grow. “A lot of kids come in and say, ‘How’s my plant doing?’” says Crista Lavenson, Marketing & Communications Manager at Alfond Youth Center.
Growing fresh produce at the Alfond Youth Center drives increased access to “fresh” at home, too. At least twice a week, kids take a portion of the fresh bounty of fruits and vegetables home to share with their families.
Many also practice their cultivation skills at home. “Several of the kids in our program have started home gardens with their parents after enjoying growing food at the center” says Mike. “It’s wonderful that kids are spending time with their parents by growing fresh produce together.”
The desire for more fresh fruits and vegetables has also led to kids encouraging their parents to shop at the local farmers’ market, spurred by Alfond’s own market where the kids met farmers and learned about growing produce.
That connection to farmers – and growers, distributors, and the produce industry as a whole – is valuable, according to Crista. “The produce industry not only helps us through issues that arise with our crops, but our industry partners, like Backyard Farms, communicate to kids the value of their food system. They help us help kids build a relationship with their food, know where it came from, and appreciate the hard work that goes into growing it,” she says.
“When we work together, each of us contributing our time and skills to the same cause, we can instill an appreciation for fresh produce at a young age, building lifelong healthy eating habits among the kids at Alfond.”
By: Ben Massoud, Communications Manager, United Fresh Produce Association