Engaging Youth through FarmWorks

By | March 01, 2015
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planting seed

Operation Come Home

During the upcoming growing season, at least a half-dozen young people will be hard at work planting and harvesting food at the Just Food Farm in Ottawa’s Greenbelt. They’ll be producing organic carrots, lettuce, kale, squash, garlic, cilantro and various other fruits and vegetables for community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.

These youth are participating in FarmWorks, one of five social businesses run by Operation Come Home, an organization that helps homeless and at-risk youth obtain employment and education. Farm- Works employs people aged 16 to 30 in organic farming. Through workshops and hands-on activity, they acquire agricultural skills — from planting and tending the crops to harvesting and delivering the CSA shares. They learn about organic and heirloom produce, and engage in the organic certification process.

Throughout their time spent in the program, they also end up eating healthier foods and spreading the word about local and organic produce. For example, each participant contributes a recipe using one of the farm’s foods to FarmWorks’ weekly newsletter, testing the recipes at home beforehand.

“There are so many things that this does for youth,” says Natalie Elliott, director of programs at Operation Come Home. “Creating jobs for at-risk homeless youth, providing skills development and innovation, providing local produce to restaurants and businesses…providing healthy living for the farm crew and for the customers, and creating partnerships in the community.”

The workers also gain time management and other life skills, and have access to social work supports. Some are dealing with addiction, mental health or other challenges as well as homelessness. Elliott points out that the practice of farming, the “fresh air and having your hands in the earth,” combined with eating healthy food can enhance both mental and physical health. Some of the benefits are even more tangible. “They were so proud when they actually harvested what they planted as a little seed,” she says.

Some of the youth move into leadership positions within FarmWorks; others go on to new jobs or pursue further education. One participant in the program’s first year became a peer leader in year two and was mentoring new recruits. Another participant is now studying to be a childand- youth worker and plans to integrate healthy food into her future work. A third individual will be starting his own farm business at the Just Food site, with support of Operation Come Home’s Innovation Works program. “He’s learned a lot from FarmWorks and now he’s super-excited to start his own,” says Elliott.

FarmWorks also benefits the community by providing local, organic produce to homes, restaurants and businesses through the CSAs. For sale on Operation Come Home’s website, the shares will run for about 18 weeks this season.

Launched with a two-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, FarmWorks has established supportive partnerships with Knifewear, Tartan Homes, Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company and the City of Ottawa and is exploring other ways of sustaining its operations.

Operation Come Home

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