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Empowering Teens: Youth Grow High School Programs

in our own words youth grow

Youth Grow in High Schools

Youth Grow began offering high school programming at David Douglas High School after SUN reached out asking for a garden consultation regarding the old school garden in the courtyard, which had fallen into disrepair. Youth Grow now not only helps to support the school garden, produce from which goes to the school’s food pantry, but offers afterschool programming and summer internships for students.

Like programming for younger students, Youth Grow at the high school level aims to use positive experiences in the garden to help teenagers gain new perspectives on food, health, and the world around them. “High school is stressful, and the goal is to give students a peaceful outlet where they feel safe and comfortable,” Corey Pierson, the Food Systems Educator at David Douglas, said. “I try to emphasize that the garden is theirs, to encourage more ownership, agency, and leadership roles.”

Unlike the pre-K and elementary school programming, Youth Grow programming at the high school level is more student-led and entirely optional. Alongside practical gardening skills, Corey hopes to help high schoolers develop confidence, build relationships with one another, and take their emotional well-being seriously. The role of the garden and Food Systems educator is to provide an inclusive environment and trusted adult figure for students of all backgrounds, many of whom might be struggling to fit in.

Youth Grow works from the understanding that high school is a stressful time, socially, emotionally, and existentially. Teenagers are under unique pressures, whether that be increased family and financial responsibilities, working through identity formation and self-confidence, and high academic workloads and career preparation. On top of this, high schoolers do not have much control over their packed daily schedules.

“If you think teenagers aren’t interested, you just haven’t found the right thing yet,” Corey said. “You have to meet them where they’re at, most high schoolers today are busier than adults.”

Meeting high schoolers where they are often means creating opportunities for them to make independent choices and advocate for themselves in the spaces they occupy, which can be hard to come by in a rigid school environment and a developmental period often characterized by low self-esteem and social stress. It can also mean pushing them to step outside of their comfort zones, creating opportunities for growth that will serve them later down the road. “I try to tell them that the cringe is the point,” Corey said.

In the garden, students decide what to grow and what kinds of activities they want to do. Youth Grow aims to offer opportunities for learning and growth as well, but hopes to show students that such experiences can be fun and do not need to add even more unnecessary stress to their plates. 

At the high school level, Youth Grow also hopes to use garden programming to introduce students to potential careers in food systems. Career preparation and furthering education are on many students’ minds, and by giving them room to explore passions and develop confidence, Youth Grow hopes that students can find excitement in this process.


Afterschool Clubs

The Food Systems Educator at David Douglas offers four afterschool clubs. In Garden Club, students take care of the two school gardens, a plot in the community garden and the courtyard garden. Since peak gardening season does not line up with the academic year, much of this looks like planning and preparing, and during the winter, doing garden-related crafts such as making flower wands and candles. 

Garden Leadership Club is smaller, for students interested in combining gardening with teaching leadership skills. Its 3-4 members volunteer at Cherry Park Elementary School, helping the Growing Gardens educator there run the K-5 programming.

The Environmental Action Club was started by a group of students interested in doing environmental projects in the wider community. It is currently on pause, as those students graduated, but will start up again if there is interest.

In Cooking Club, usually the most well-attended, students learn basic cooking skills, explore culture through food, and use food from the garden when possible. While David Douglas offers culinary classes, Cooking Club offers a less intense way for students to explore the culinary arts, without the pressures of grades and homework. Students from food insecure backgrounds may be drawn to Cooking Club as a definite source of a meal, and the club can connect them with other resources at the school, such as the food pantry that the garden produce goes towards.

Club attendance ebbs and flows over the course of the year, but students are encouraged to come as often as makes sense in their schedules and are always welcome to return after some time away. It is common for small groups of friends to begin attending together, and over time, mix with other groups of students and develop new friendships. In a high school environment, friendships often arise based on circumstance. With limited time and a tightly-scheduled day, students usually group up with people they know from elementary and middle school, who live in their neighborhoods, or take similar classes.

“With interest-based clubs, students can build relationships based on shared interests rather than circumstance,” Cory said. “This often means stronger friendships.”

Youth Grow has also partnered with other nonprofits that work at the school, as well as student-led organizations. Youth Grow supported the Indigenous Students Union in creating a bed in the garden for first foods and ritual plants, and has led healthy cooking classes for sports teams.


Summer Internships  

During the summer, the Food Systems Educator takes on 2-3 student interns for a paid eight-week internship, spent tending to the school garden, exploring local food systems, and developing leadership skills. 

“A lot of kids who apply have gardens at home, and are already sensitive to issues of food access and environmental issues,” Cory said. “But there are some kids who don’t know anything about it, and it’s important to give them a chance, too. Maybe they just like vegetables, and this can lead into bigger stuff.”

The first half of the internship is spent helping teach a gardening elective in a summer school academic intervention program called Ninth Grade Counts for 20 incoming ninth graders. Over 3,000 students attend David Douglas, coming from four middle schools, making the already significant transition to high school overwhelming for many first-years. When the school year starts, the interns will be friendly faces and contacts for advice and support for the new students.

Given an early introduction into the Youth Grow opportunities at David Douglas, some ninth graders will then opt in to the afterschool clubs or summer internships themselves. Additionally, the interns get to cultivate their own teaching and leadership skills in a hands-on environment.

The second half of the internship is spent taking field trips to connect students with leaders in local food systems. In the past, interns have visited Come Thru Market, Clackamas Greenhouses, and various farmers’ markets and working farms. This serves as a rapid-fire introduction to careers in food and agriculture.

High school students naturally bring in conversations about social justice and systemic inequity to activities relating to food and agriculture. Many students have lived experience with food insecurity and unjust food systems, and are already critically thinking about these issues. 

“As we’re growing things and cooking with them, questions of ‘where did this come from?’ naturally come up,” Corey said, adding that “climate is at the front of the mind for most teenagers, and there can be a sense of ‘what am I supposed to do?’”

Youth Grow hopes to provide a space where students can learn from one another and explore these issues. By encouraging students to enjoy the creativity, autonomy, and pleasure that gardening can offer, Youth Grow hopes to frame these experiences in a hopeful light, cultivating a strong new generation of potential food systems leaders.

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