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Cultivating leaders; YouthGROW program gives teens a chance to grow.

Byline: Dave Greenslit

On a midsummer's day when many kids might be swimming, shooting baskets or just hanging out, trying to stay cool, seven teenagers were hard at work at the Stone Soup community center on King Street in Worcester, chopping vegetables, peeling garlic and washing greens.

They were making kale pesto pasta and salad for the evening dinner -- for as many as 50 people -- and much of the produce came from gardens they had tended.

The teens are participants in the Regional Environmental Council's YouthGROW program, which hires more than 30 teenagers from low-income homes each year and teaches them urban farming and leadership skills.

As part of the program, the teens take nutrition classes and learn how to prepare healthful meals.

Grace Duffy, program coordinator for YouthGROW (GRowing Opportunities in Worcester), said gardens in Grant Square Park on Bell Hill and on Oread Street in Main South grow 2,500 pounds of produce each year. Vegetables include kale, onion, garlic, arugula, bok choy, radishes, beets, tomatoes, peppers, leeks and carrots. The gardens also include edible flowers and herbs.

Most of the produce is sold at the environmental council's farmers markets to make money for the program. But some is used in breakfasts and lunches for YouthGROW participants, she said, as well as community dinners the teenagers prepare. The recent dinner, held in a tent at the Oread Street garden, was for the 34 youths who work the two urban gardens, plus family members, friends and program staffers.

Jaquale Welds, 17, is a YouthGROW leader who has been in the program for four years. He recently graduated from South High Community School, where he played football, basketball and baseball. Welds said he used to spend his summers playing sports, but then he "got lucky'' when a friend introduced him to YouthGROW.

"I ended up loving it,'' he said.

Besides learning about farming, Welds said he gained valuable leadership skills, an opportunity he called unusual for teenagers. He plans to attend Monroe College in New York to study sports management. According to Duffy, inspiring youths to go to college is one of YouthGROW's main goals.

Before preparing the community dinner, Welds and fellow program participants had a class taught by Robyn DeCiero and Nicole Barton of the UMass Extension Nutrition Education Program. The day's topic was whole grains.

Barton explained how bread made from refined white flour became popular with the rich over the years. When it was later learned that people were getting sick because nutrients in whole grains were being lost in the refining process, the U.S. government mandated that some of those nutrients be added back to refined flour.

"Why would you want to enrich when you could have natural?'' Barton asked the group. "There's nothing wonderful about Wonder Bread.''

She gave each class member a small sandwich bag with a healthful snack -- whole grain Chex mix, whole grain Cheerios and raisins -- and passed around containers of refined and unrefined flour and rice.

After discussing nutrition labels on packaged foods and learning the first ingredient listed makes up most of a product, the group was shown labels from some popular foods, and asked whether each was whole grain.

There were a couple surprises. Lucky Charms cereal was a whole grain (though Barton warned it is loaded with sugar), but Wheat Thins crackers were not.

"This is an example of being a detective when you put food in your body,'' Duffy said.

For more information about YouthGROW, farmers' markets and other Regional Environmental Council programs, visit
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Title Annotation:Living
Author:Greenslit, Dave
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 6, 2014
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