In Thunder Bay, So-Called 'Punks' Grow Your Food
At-risk youth cultivate food, which winds up at markets and in local products
Roots to Harvest describes itself as “punks growing food.”
The “punks” – others might call them “at-risk youth” – are young people in Thunder Bay who may be falling through the cracks at school or within the community. The grassroots organization teaches them how to grow and cultivate food, which in turn is sold at local markets or at low prices to people who might be struggling with food costs.
The programs help Thunder Bay youth with job skills, with school, and with building a sense of belonging in the community – all by working with food in gardens and kitchens.
As for the “punks” tagline? “Everyone can relate to being a punk or having punk tendencies at some point in their lives” says executive director Erin Beagle. “[The word] has a little bit of power. We’re young, the people we’re working with are young, and they’re doing good stuff.”
Like other similar programs in North American cities – the Windy City Harvest Youth Farm in Chicago, for example, and Hope Blooms in Halifax – Roots to Harvest finds that taking responsibility for growing food gives a sense of purpose to young people who may otherwise be adrift, a significant challenge in some of the city’s communities.
“We’re not trying to turn these kids into foodies or farmers"
“I think it works so well because the youth can see there’s nothing make-work or program-y about it,” says Beagle, who got Roots to Harvest up and running back in 2007. “We balance challenge with achievement. The work we do is hard. It requires effort they may not have had to expend before, but you see the tangible results of growing food. Overcoming challenges translates really clearly into the lives of the kids we work with. They’re coming up against challenges all the time, and we help them see that things can be hard and still be achievable.”
The oldest Roots to Harvest program is the Urban Youth Garden, a vacant lot in Thunder Bay’s increasingly trendy Bay and Algoma neighbourhood (the site will move this year). A group of 15- to 18-year-olds, referred by high schools and social service agencies, work in a large garden two days a week for six weeks, tending to staple vegetables while also looking after honey-producing apiaries.
Courtesy Roots to Harvest
The program sells the produce at a weekly market, while the participants also head out on a small fleet of donated bikes and trailers to various bus stops, offering inexpensive fresh veggies to people waiting for the bus (in Thunder Bay that tends to be people with low fixed incomes). The other three days of the week are spent working at area farms.
"At school, I'm the ghost who doesn't get noticed"
“We’re not trying to turn these kids into foodies or farmers,” Beagle says. “It’s about the skills behind the work. They get to have mentors, and we expose them to the work ethic of a farmer, which really rubs off. And they feel good about being part of something that has purpose and value in the community. At our market, the adults buying the vegetables are chatting to the youth, and it’s sometimes the first positive interaction they’ve had with an adult they don’t know.”
Mekhi, a 16-year-old participant, says Roots to Harvest gives him a sense of purpose. “I don't really feel like I have a place at school. I'm the ghost who doesn't get noticed,” he says. “I like going to Roots to Harvest because it gives me a reason to go out and if I didn't have it I'd probably just stay at home. So far, it's been fun.”
Beyond fun, executive director Beagle says Roots to Harvest can plant the seed of life accomplishments. “It could be a kid who gets a co-op credit and finishes Grade 12. It could be a kid who goes to school more often, or it could be a kid who now makes eye contact.”
Beagle says some past students come back tell the program staff that memories of their time in Roots to Harvest helped them make better decisions in lives down the road.
Roots to Harvest has added a couple more programs to complement its Urban Youth Garden. At the Roots to Harvest Urban Farm, launched at a different site in 2016 with a more intensive growing program, 18- to 24-year-olds raise rabbits destined for the stew pot, grow vegetables and tend bees, with an increased focus on building employable skills.
Through the Academic Year Program, meanwhile, six interns do part-time work throughout the year, not just in the summer. They get stable work, and learn skills including seed saving and starting, winter farm work, food processing, cooking, and harvesting donated apples from trees around the city to make non-alcoholic Bay City Cider.
Several local businesses are enthusiastic customers. You can find Bay City Cider as an ingredient in the apple bitters from Frape & Sons Boutique Bitters, and in seasonal cocktails such as the “cider bite” at hip eatery Tomlin.
“Bay City Cider isn't simply a local product, it's a labour of love,” says Nancy Shaw, co-owner of Tomlin. “The second you use it in a cocktail, it's no longer just a drink, it becomes a story … and the story of Roots to Harvest is remarkable."