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Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014

We Grow Greens

Food education and employment skills for teens

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Within Milwaukee’s bustling urban agriculture scene, a new organization cultivating greens may get lost in the shuffle. However, We Grow Greens, a cooperative of educators and sustainability leaders committed to healthy food systems and nature-based learning, has combined local, nutritious food production with hands-on learning for teens through a skill-building paid internship, Teens Grow Greens.

We Grow Greens was founded August 2013 by Messmer High School teacher Charles Uihlein. He designed Teens Grow Greens, the internship that consists of eight 14 through 17-year-olds who meet two to three times per week at Weber’s Greenhouses on Milwaukee’s North Side. During the frigid days of February, the teens started growing sunflower microgreens and have since added technicolor Swiss chard, red Russian kale, brandywine tomatoes, arugula, spicy salad mix and bok choy. Natural gardening practices are used, including worm castings tea for fertilizer and neem oil to combat pests.

The students also participate in educational activities. One meeting consisted of a group discussion about large-scale food production and the treatment of commercial livestock after viewing the documentary Food, Inc. The teens also went on a scavenger hunt throughout the greenhouses to identify types of plants and flowers.

“Teens Grow Greens is not only about gardening and food education, but also about empowering teens,” Uihlein said. “We want the kids to be good citizens and become the new leaders of Milwaukee.”

The teens introduced their greens and starts at their first fundraising sale, Start Your Summer, held May 24 at Weber’s. This summer, We Grow Greens will be at the East Side Green Market and at the Westown Farmers’ Market. At the market stands, the teens will hone their business and professional skills as they sell their greens, tomatoes, bok choy, Swiss chard, squash and peppers.

While the seed-starts flourished at Weber’s, much produce available for purchase will be grown at Fred’s Garden, located on the property of a North Side residence whose owners are working with Teens Grow Greens to carry on their late father’s gardening traditions. Markell, a 16-year-old Bradley Tech student and Teens Grow Greens intern, designed the garden.

Students applied for the internship through various means: Some heard of it through their public, private or charter schools, or through Pathfinders counselors. Some of the teens involved with We Grow Greens had exposure to gardening through friends and family and some did not. Yet all of them expressed enthusiasm over what they had learned so far about sustainable food systems, growing vegetables with organic methods, business skills and teamwork. Uihlein said the internship is structured like a business, with assigned duties such as bookkeeping and social media.

We Grow Greens recently applied for nonprofit status, and the organization is sustained by donations.

Terry, a student at Messmer High School, said her uncle owns a farm. Despite having exposure to an agricultural environment, she grew a Cherokee purple heirloom tomato for the first time through We Grown Greens. Like most of the students, she agreed that the end results are rewarding. “What you grow, you can eat,” she said.

For more information, visit wegrowgreens.org.