It started with squash – not the vegetable, but the game. Stuart Jablon, President and CEO of Backyard Farms was playing against Ken Walsh, the CEO of the Alfond Youth Center, who shared that he was interested in building a greenhouse for the organization’s 5,000 kids, nearly 80 percent of whom are food insecure. He asked if Stuart would support the endeavor. Backyard Farms had contributed a salad bar to a local school one year prior through the United Fresh Start Foundation’s Salad Bars to Schools program. Now, it had an opportunity to help those same kids by providing fresh produce beyond the school day. Stuart jumped at the chance.
In 2017, the Alfond Youth Center completed its Growing Dome Greenhouse, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables for the kids in the organization’s afterschool, summer, and weekend backpack programs. Backyard Farms provided seeds, seedlings, volunteers, and consultation. The Alfond Youth Center received additional support through a 2018 United Fresh Start Foundation Community Grant to expand the program with new outdoor beds and healthy recipes and menus for its programs.
“When we do community relations activities like this it really is in the spirit of doing the right thing,” says Jim Darroch, Director of Marketing at Backyard Farms. “Parents are busier than ever. We have to do everything we can to make sure kids not only know how to make healthy choices, but they also learn how delicious those choices can be,” he adds.
But it’s not just a love of eating fresh produce that kids gain through the Backyard Farms and Alfond Youth Center partnership – it’s a love of growing it, too. And that has benefits beyond helping kids develop healthy eating habits.
While it’s not the driving force for their commitment to Alfond or to kids, Backyard Farms recognizes that when growing fresh produce excites kids today, they may pursue careers in produce tomorrow.
“Our society is very good at telling kids they can be anything and do anything and dream anything, but we’re not always good at showing kids how to convert their passions and talents into marketable skills,” says Jim. Through its work with the Aflond Youth Center, Backyard Farms is planning to lay out career options for kids who thrive in a more physical job, are mechanically inclined or just prefer to work with their hands.
By introducing kids to growing fresh produce, Backyard Farms is inspiring them to explore the basics of greenhouse growing and discover the myriad skills, interests, and passions that contribute to providing consumers with fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We talk about growing talent. This could be a feeder system to that,” Jim explains. “Imagine if a few of the kids we connect with at Alfond go on to work for us at our greenhouse. Now imagine one or two of those kids being promoted to supervisor roles and being sent to one of United Fresh’s professional development programs. That would really be something and it’s totally possible.”
What’s next for the partnership between Backyard Farms and the Alfond Youth Center? In the coming months, Backyard Farms employees will engage kids directly, mentoring them and teaching them the skills to grow produce. “We’re going to start with a meeting at our greenhouse to learn what they’re planning to teach the kids and how we can support their program,” Backyard Farms General Manager Arie vander Giessen explains. “From there, we’ll send some of our crop care supervisors and IPM experts to their greenhouse to help the kids with their crops and show them how the skills they’re learning could put them on a great career path in the produce industry.”
Showing kids how produce makes eating healthy fun and working hard rewarding. As Jim says, “That’s where the real magic of this partnership has always been.”
By: Kate Olender, Senior Director, Health & Wellness, United Fresh Produce Association