Food as Medicine: Vermont Youth Grow Food for the Hungry
WHEN I JOIN the farm crew on a late morning in midsummer, they are just finishing up the day’s squash and cucumber harvest. Crew leader Jeremy Schleining, dressed in Carhartts and a ball cap, is standing between the rows of sprawling waist-high zucchini plants that have become so prolific they seem to grow right before my eyes. I can hear the voices of the harvesters, who are crouched down between the rows, drifting softly in the air with the sweet fragrances of summer.
“Everyone!” Schleining calls out gently. “We’re going to wash-pack now.”
The harvesters appear as they stand, dressed in their Vermont Youth Conservation Corps uniforms—short-sleeved green button-down shirts with a VYCC patch over the shoulder—lifting totes full of vegetables to be hauled to the far end of the row and onto an old pickup. I follow behind a Nepali girl named Anjou, who wears sandals, her arms adorned with bangles.
The first indication that this is no ordinary organic farm are those green shirts. Modelled after FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the Depression era, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps is an educational and conservation program, and like its predecessor, VYCC is dedicated as much to healing bodies and spirits as it is to repairing abused soils and degraded forests. At the farm at VYCC, the principle of food as medicine is in operation, in more ways than one.
The nine members of the VYCC farm crew, who are between fifteen and eighteen years old, are hired to work on the farm through the Labor Department’s Workforce Investment Act. The farm crew and their mentors—apprentices in their early twenties who live and work on the farm—can claim a sizable share of the thousands of hours of labor that go into growing and packing vegetables for some three hundred farm shares every week for twelve weeks. Almost all of this food is distributed free of charge to families who would otherwise have no access to fresh local produce. Cooking and nutrition classes are included.
A Holistic Approach to Food, Work, and Health
In a unique partnership with area hospitals called Health Care Shares, the farm at VYCC offers weekly farm shares throughout the growing season to income-eligible patients who have been selected by their physicians. In both 2013 and 2014, the farm delivered over 50,000 pounds of organically raised produce, and the occasional pasture-raised chicken, to poorly nourished Vermonters, while providing meaningful full-time employment to at-risk youth. Most of the crew are working their first jobs, and will leave here, says Schleining, “with a solid job experience on their resumes—and a reference.”
I walk back to the wash station with Bruce, an eighteen-year-old with light blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, who is working his second season on the farm. To be eligible for a job on the crew through the WIA program, applicants must be economically disadvantaged and must have at least one other “barrier to employment”: either they have a disability, are homeless, or are in foster care. Bruce (who asked me to withhold his last name) would qualify for at least three risk factors, although since he turned eighteen he is no longer a legal ward of the state. He was about ten years old, he tells me, when he first went into Department of Children and Families custody. It wasn’t until two years ago that he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, inflicted by his birth father, who smashed his head against a cement floor when he was a small child.
“I finally spoke up about the abuse that was going on,” he explained, regarding his injury. “I had no choice.”
As we walk, Bruce tells me about the farm of his own he wants to have one day.
“I don’t think I’ll have meat birds. I don’t like them. I prefer heritage birds. You have a more constant cycle.”
We meet up again with Schleining and the others who are washing freshly picked vegetables in three large metal troughs in the shade, sorting them into “firsts” and “seconds.” A tall girl with long blond hair is hanging over the edge of a trough, draping her arms up to her elbows in the cool water. Three crew members who have recently emigrated from Nepal are at the far end of the wash station, chatting among themselves in Nepali.
Schleining picks up a large zucchini covered with warts and holds it up.
“Would you call this a second?” he asks.
He agrees, and tosses it into a tote. Twenty-six-year-old Schleining, who wears nickel-sized studs in his ears and has a colorful peace sign tattooed on his forearm, came here from Seattle, where he studied custom auto painting at a technical college. A patch on his green shirt reads “Americorps/Vista.”
“I thought I wanted to build muscle cars,” he tells me. “It’s amazing how much a person can change in ten years.”
Schleining is also responsible for facilitating the crew’s daily reading, writing, and discussion sessions. The purpose of these sessions, he says, is “to teach them to start discussing things.” (On the day I observed discussion, one of the crew members had selected the topic, “Due Process and Equal Protection for Gays and Lesbians,” which was, among the farm crew, entirely uncontroversial. Gay marriage? Why not?) Schleining tells me that he loves working with kids. “It’s been fun seeing them learn where food comes from. What does a broccoli plant look like? People are shocked. Onions really do come out of the ground! Learning these things changes the way we think about food. It creates better eating habits.”
He draws a large smooth-skinned zucchini through the cool water, lifts it, and lets the water fall down into the tub.
“I grew up in a family where money was tight. We couldn’t afford to eat well. That’s why this program really hits home.”
Today’s New Deal: Food Justice
It is hard to imagine, but the US federal government once enlisted three million young men between 1933 and 1941 to address a national environmental crisis. Drawn from the legions of unemployed youth who roamed the streets in search of work, crews were deployed across America to repair the “waste, neglect, and destruction of generations” by planting trees and anchoring soils that were billowing across the landscape in great clouds of dust. The CCC introduced progressive ideas and conservationist thinking into every corner of the country and was embraced across political divisions. “Work without thought is drudgery” was a core principle of a program that sought to “close the gap between the practical and the theoretical,” to engage minds as well as bodies. However we evaluate its success as a conservation program, its effect on those who took part was undeniably transformative.
I would not expect that the current administration create anything like the CCC of the Depression era. Federal food and farm policies are too entrenched, the institution of the presidency too disgraced, and the culture too enamored of technological fixes to accept that the best solutions to our problems might be low-tech, hand-built, and close to home.
But there is no reason why the Vermont program—built on the core principle that access to healthful food is a human right—could not be reproduced in every county, on the outskirts of every city, wherever there are idle youth, farmlands in need of repair, depressed local economies, and communities without access to healthful food. Land trusts, youth groups, hospitals, labor departments, schools, climate justice groups, and food shelves can work together to reclaim farmlands from suburban sprawl, provide meaningful work to youth, build local food systems, reduce hunger and obesity, and create low-carbon peace economies. Town by town and crew by crew, community farms on the VYCC model across the country could change the way Americans think about food and our relationship to the places where we live and work. Farm work should not be drudgery. A community that knows “how to discuss things” will neither be backward nor intolerant, but inclusive and diverse.
This is what a local food system that is also a model of food justice could look like. A vigorous local food movement has much to be proud of, but inclusive it is not. In Vermont, which has the highest number of farmers’ markets per capita of any state, and where a vibrant local food movement is growing, so, too, is food insecurity, a term generally defined as the lack of sufficient access to food to consistently meet an individual’s or a family’s basic needs. For a state that is ranked number one for its commitment to local food, it is a source of shame that, according to a 2011–2012 study conducted by the US Census Bureau, 84,000 Vermonters could not afford to meet their basic food needs, and 21 percent of Vermont children are food insecure. To “vote with the fork” as a way of letting food corporations know that we do not want to eat pesticide-laden, genetically modified, reconstituted foods is the privilege of those who can afford to buy organic brussels sprouts at eight dollars a pound.
The VYCC model of food justice should also be our model for the future of farming. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food has acknowledged, scientific evidence has abundantly shown that sustainable agriculture offers the most promise for increasing food production, poverty alleviation, and resilience to climate shocks as we look forward to a global population of nine billion people. The future of food lies not in industrial, chemically intensive agriculture but in ecologically based practices, like those that are practiced and taught at the VYCC.
Food Justice as Health Justice
The success of the Health Care Shares program has been unequivocal. Physicians participating in the program cannot emphasize enough the contribution of poor nutrition to the many chronic health problems they see in their patients, from hypertension to obesity to Type 2 diabetes. They also describe an enormous need, in Vermont as well as throughout the nation, for access to nutritious food, and a revival of a lost culture of home cooking. “There are many people who know they don’t eat well, but they don’t know what to do about it,” says Barbara Bendrix, who coordinates the Health Care Shares for a clinic in Plainfield, Vermont. “When you give them an opportunity to change the way they eat, they jump on it.”
“Primary care is changing,” says Dr. Alicia Jacobs, a physician with Colchester Family Practice, one of the first clinics to participate in the program:
In our practice we provide a medical home that is choosing to care for patients in a different way. Instead of medicalizing every problem, by sending patients out to specialists, we provide nutritional guidance, exercise coaches, and social workers. This is the exciting context of the Health Care Shares program. The VYCC is changing the culture of food by teaching people how to cook and engaging youth in farming, while the culture of medicine is also turning a corner.
The impacts of the program on the youth who participate on the other end of the process—those who plant, harvest, and distribute the food—is also undeniably positive, even for those who have learned that they don’t particularly like farming. They are learning what it means to be connected to their food, to the land, to one another, and to the broader community. Farm crews include new Americans who have come from refugee camps in Nepal, Thailand, and Kenya, who harvest and plant side by side with fifteen-year-olds who have never traveled outside Vermont. Together, they discuss social issues over lunch, cook giant meals, and break bread together.
“In mid-summer,” says Cae Keenan, a farm apprentice, “the farm is a beautiful sight to see. It’s also a vision of something greater: the combined work of hundreds of people in a celebration of food.”
I rejoined Bruce at work on the crew’s next-to-last day. “I love working outdoors!” he tells me, “I love to farm.” He picks a squash and notices that something has taken a bite out of it. “A rabbit,” he muses, tossing it on the ground between the rows.
I ask Bruce what it is about farming that he likes so much.
“It’s rewarding. You see a plant grow from a little seedling all the way to bearing fruit.” He drops an overripe squash between the rows. “The best part about this program is that all the food is going to people who need it. And we’re feeding the earth, as well as feeding people.”
Further down the row, I find another member of the crew working by herself, harvesting yellow squashes, a fifteen-year- old with shoulder-length blond hair and porcelain limbs. I ask her how she feels about the season coming to an end. “It makes me sad,” she says. As she talks, I notice she has a series of razor-thin scars along the length of her forearm. “I love everything about this farm,” she says, taking in air as she begins to talk, as if she were preparing for a dive. “It’s my passion, it’s what I want to do with my life. Everyone here is just really, really friendly. I can be feeling bad and I can just go and pick some vegetables, and it makes me feel good because I know we’re giving it to people who can’t afford it, and I just love it here.” She looks up from her work and gazes across the rows. “I hope I can come back.”
Before they go, the summer crew will celebrate the harvest and nine weeks of their hard work with their community. The Friday Night Food Affair is a free community meal held every week at the Congregational church in town. But it is not every week that participants are served a seven-course meal, with most of the ingredients freshly harvested from the garden. The summer crew and their mentors have gone all out for this one. Each of them has contributed a family recipe: shepherd’s pie, stuffed shells, Nepali cabbage dumplings, a variety of salads and appetizers, and for dessert, a mixed berry mousse with maple whipped cream. The tables are dressed in white tablecloths and decorated with small bouquets of zinnias.
At the entrance, two farm crew members, Tracy and Stephanie, stand near the front door to greet dinner guests as they arrive. They are dressed in their green shirts, their hair is neatly tied back, and their faces, tinted from working in the sun, are aglow. They smile for a photograph, looking into the camera and into an uncertain future. That uncertainty would be more unsettling if they were not surrounded by their community. Their community has new members now, some with origins far away, and for nine teenagers among them, they understand, as too few of us do, what it means to be connected to others through the land that feeds us.
Tikkun 2016 Volume 31, Number 2: 34-37