Food is a force for good. We believe this to be true in every aspect of what we do — that’s why we work with forward-thinking nonprofit partners to promote healthy living and eating in our cities. One of those remarkable partners is Urban Roots.
Urban Roots started in 2008 with just 15 teenagers and one field, as a project of another youth development organization. By their third year, Urban Roots doubled the number of young people participating in their programs and took over the whole farm. The organization became an independent nonprofit in 2011, serving teens and young adults through paid internships that focus not just on farming, but also on cooking, business, and leadership skills.
Urban Roots grows upwards of 50 types of fruit, vegetables, and herbs on a 3.5-acre farm. Forty percent of their produce is donated to food pantries and soup kitchens, and the rest is sold at Farmers’ Markets and in wholesale to small grocers and restaurants.
We met with Urban Roots’s Executive Director, Max Elliott, on a spring day a few months before we opened our very first CAVA Austin location. Max showed us around the East Austin farm and gave us the scoop on Urban Roots’s programs, impact on the community – and what’s next for the 10-year-old organization.
We provide paid internships for young people to learn where food comes from, as well as life, job, and leadership skills – and really get a great sense of what it feels like to give back to the community.
Every Saturday is a volunteer day, where our participants get leadership opportunities through public speaking. They host groups of adult volunteers at the farm, lead them through farm tasks, have lunch, and play games.
There are different workshops, ranging from money management to public speaking to nutrition to cooking classes. The business training is more experiential and focuses on customer service. How do you engage customers? What is a thoughtful, creative exchange with people?
We also hold what we call Real Talk: We give feedback. Positives: things you’re doing well, and Deltas: areas of growth. The expectations are high, and the paid internship is a great motivator – the pay is based on performance. By receiving and giving feedback, they also build those 21st-century communication muscles, self-awareness, and self-management.
What do you focus on in your cooking classes?
We have a culinary coordinator who helps us plan, and the youth give us feedback on what they want to learn.
And we also work with chefs every summer. We throw community lunches for up to 50 guests, where the youth serve a meal they’ve created with the chef and practice their public speaking by telling their Urban Roots story. It’s just a really great way to build community.
Why does farming in particular work as a youth development program?
Farming is an amazing thing that connects everybody. Everybody eats. Every cultural tradition has a tie to agriculture at some point. It’s also inherently team building, especially in Central Texas.
Farming can be this amazing equalizing opportunity, where people come out and join together over a common goal, and do something that connects them with the land, with their bodies, and with the community. It’s a very basic, tangible task. But it’s also transformative – we’re growing food for people in need.
Tell us a little bit about the youth you work with. What are their backgrounds? How long do they stay in the program, and what sort of change do you see in them after they graduate?
We intentionally recruit youth from very diverse backgrounds. We have teens that are coming from more at-risk environments, and we have kids from more privileged backgrounds. Having a very diverse peer community gives them the chance to really learn from each other.
Most of the youth are here for a semester or a semester and a summer. So, 10 or 16 weeks. What we’re measuring in our pre- and post-tests (through focus groups and parent surveys) is self-confidence, knowledge, skills, and behaviors around what they eat and how engaged they are in the community.
The change we see is pretty wild.
It sounds like Urban Roots is really much more than just about farming.
Farming is just our tool. It’s our vehicle for change.
We say that we’re more a farm. We set out to better our kids’ lives, job opportunities, and leadership skills; create a healthy relationship with food; and better their sense of social responsibility and efficacy. Those are the kinds of the outcomes we’re looking to show.
A big part of that is bonding as a team. You can see a connection to the land happen over time. This farm is a unique, welcoming space. A lot of them say that this is where – no matter how bad a day they had at home or at school – they can come out here, relax, and know that it’s going to be okay. It’s a refuge.
Working with your hands in the soil is really powerful and therapeutic thing.
It’s Urban Roots’s 10th anniversary this year! What’s next?
A big focus that we have right now is finding a long-term home for the farm. We don’t own this property, we’ve been renting the whole time. So we’re trying to secure this site for the long term since this is where people know us and it’s so accessible to the city.
And then, we will continue to explore and grow our suite of programs that can create even more opportunities for young people to get involved, including opportunities for youth to come back for a second or third year.
Do you see a lot of people from the 14- to 17-year-old age group come back to do fellowships for that older age group?
That is our hope, but it hasn’t happened quite like that – not yet anyway. We’re looking to make some changes to the program structure in this coming year, and to invest in young people to come back for a second year.
We also continue to pilot programs, like a Food Gym, where young people from all across Austin came together to think about food: from cooking to artist expression to thinking about healthy lifestyles in different ways. So, we hope to continue to pilot and learn about what works and what connects with young people.
Do you have a favorite moment from interacting with people in the program?
About eight years ago, we had an interesting interaction with police. A neighbor falsely accused our youth of trespassing and called the police. The police came by with an accusatory tone, and it really threw off the six young people we were working with at the time. This was their place of refuge, where they felt safe.
After that happened, we invited the police to talk about what happened. They came, and we told them about how we’re creating opportunities for young people to grow, and that it’s important that they feel safe. We told them we thought it was a missed opportunity to engage young people. The officers apologized and invited us to come to their Commander’s Forum, a big potluck where the public is invited to interact with police officers.
So I went to the Commander’s Forum with one of our youth leaders that were there during the initial incident. He led a presentation about Urban Roots and got a standing ovation from the community members and police officers.
While we were driving back after the event, he told me that this was the first time he has ever felt appreciated or celebrated by the police. And so to see him have a different kind of experience, and to see the police elevate, celebrate, and support youth leaders in that way – that felt like it was the beginning of a conversation. It was a transformative experience for everyone.
What has been the organization’s biggest achievement in its ten years?
I talk about Urban Roots like a sports team. Everyone has two to three sports teams they root for – Urban Roots is that team for a lot of people in our community.
Our biggest accomplishment? I think we’ve given young people something to latch onto and grow through. We’ve distributed over half a million dollars in these stipends in the last ten years.
I think that we’ve been able to have a multiplier effect: We’re creating opportunities for young people – and amplifying food justice on top of that.
And we make it fun.
On any given day, you can be in our fields and hear people cheer when they finish a task. Come by on a Saturday, you’ll hear youth celebrating, having fun. And the community is here too, integrated into it all.
There are a lot of divisions in America today, but Urban Roots is where people from all walks of life can come together and unite for something that nourishes everybody.
That’s great. Thanks for spending time with us.
Yeah. I appreciate it. Would you like to try a carrot?
For more information about Urban Roots, visit urbanrootsatx.org.