The ELPN-sponsored program gives 10 Dunbar students the opportunity for a hands-on education about healthy food and job skills.
Quaran Johnson knelt in the dirt, pulling a brown, wilted plant out of the ground. A young zucchini plant sat nearby, which Johnson eased into his row of plants before patting the dirt around it. By the end of the summer, if all goes well, he'll sell the squash from that plant to Lubbock residents.
Johnson spends one morning each week at the South Plains Food Bank GRUB (Growing Recruits for Urban Business) Farm. The soon-to-be ninth-grader at Estacado High School is part of a summer program called the Garden Initiative. It has a fivefold mission: Give East Lubbock teens something to do during the summer; teach them about healthy eating and the work that goes into every piece of produce; teach job skills; make some money; get along with others.
The inaugural program is one part of the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood, a grant-funded campaign sponsored by Texas Tech University's College of Education and College of Human Sciences designed to improve the health, life and educational opportunities for East Lubbock children, adults and families. Dozens of community groups and Texas Tech students, faculty and staff are participating in a variety of different programs.
Michele Cook, a curriculum coordinator for ELPN, runs the Garden Initiative, which is a project-based learning program designed to get students applying what they learn. Two mornings a week the students meet her at Dunbar College Preparatory Academy, where they all just finished eighth grade, and get on a bus. Once a week they go on field trips to sites like the National Ranching Heritage Center, the Lubbock Arboretum, Bayer Museum of Agriculture and the Texas Tech greenhouse.
The other day of the week they farm. Each of the 10 students is responsible for his or her own row, including weeding and taking care of the crops. If one of the participants isn't there, others pitch in and help out with that row.
"We've gotta get the weeds every time," Cook said.
Cook and Mike Ruiz, an ELPN employee who used to be a coach at Dunbar, picked these students to participate. They weren't looking for troublemakers or trying to replace summer school. These students have pretty good grades, Cook said, though some may struggle with different subjects. Some of them are shy, some don't participate in extracurricular activities.
"We want to make sure we keep them engaged during the summertime," she said. "That lag time is when they start doing things that can hinder them."
The teenagers have a good time with their work and with each other.
"We compete against each other," Johnson said. "I like competition."
Jeredias Cruz, a ninth-grader who will attend either Coronado or Estacado High School in the fall, has gardened before. It is hard work, he said, but he likes doing it.
"It's pretty fun because I like to see the plants grow, and you get to eat some of the plants," Cruz said.
The students are paid to be there. The grant provides $1,000 per student, which Cook pays out during the course of the summer, plus another $1,000 per student based on how many bonus points each student gets. They get points for showing leadership, helping each other and making presentations, which come later in the summer.
It's not a bad payday for 14-year-olds, so the teenagers want to be there. Cook wants them there participating too; the program won't help these young teenagers if she kicks them out for small infractions. However, she needs to enforce rules, require discipline and ensure the students can at least be civil with each other.
To do that, she puts it back on the students. After a number of them complained about one student's behavior, she pulled him aside and asked him not to come the next day. He needed to think about whether he wanted to participate and what he needed to change in his behavior. He came back and is getting along with everyone, Cook said.
"You have to allow for them to grow and be able to change," she said.
They are changing, Ruiz said. He's known some of these students for years, and two or three years ago he didn't think he'd see them helping each other and laughing together. He credited the program with giving them a reason to work together and to understand the benefits of collaboration.
"Nobody's really asked them to do anything before this," he said.
Preparing for the future
These 10 teenagers likely will not grow up and become farmers, but they're still learning skills they'll use at every job they have. Cook said the teenagers are responsible for getting to Dunbar on time to meet the bus, weed their rows and the rows of peers who didn't attend that day and make sure their plants are progressing properly. They're also learning why collaboration is important.
That lesson has sunk in, as the four boys in attendance one day were faced with many rows of weeds. Instead of each boy hoeing his own row, all four jumped into first one row and then the next to get the weeds. When the weeding was done, all of them moved into planting.
When the plants start producing, the students will market their crops to consumers. Cook said this will include presentations, sales proposals and research at local grocery stores to find the market price for zucchini and how much they should charge.
They're also learning the importance of calling Cook when they know they're not coming and that payment is linked in part to how hard they work.
"They're learning 21st century skills. That's what we're doing here, and they don't know that," Cook said. "They think they're out here just planting some stuff."
The summer program is more than a part-time job, though. All of these teenagers live on the east side of Lubbock, which is considered a food desert. One grocery store serves 30,000 people, and that grocery store is pretty far north and thus not easy to get to for a large chunk of those residents. That means many end up going to convenience stories for groceries.
This "fast" food, while it may be the norm, isn't healthy, and part of having the kids on the farm this summer is to introduce them to "slow" food and how much work goes into getting food to consumers.
"We know that growing our own stuff is slow food, but what does that mean?" Cook said. "Why is it healthier?"
The program also introduces the teens to different job opportunities. Like Johnson, they don't want to be farmers, but when the group went tractor shopping in early July, the store owner talked to them about the need for mechanics in any industry with machines and how well-paid those mechanics were. Each new person they talk to presents the students with new ideas, Cook said.
She wants them to be more than good employees, however. Cook is hoping the students walk away feeling a greater responsibility for natural resources and for community involvement. She talks to them about sustainable growth, organic farming and why they are always attacking the weeds but commercial farmers who use pesticides don't have to.
"The idea is that students take ownership in what we're doing," she said. "They learn a ton of different skills, they learn collaboration, they learn how to be a good steward of the land as well as how to be a good citizen."
About the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood grant
ELPN, founded in 2013, is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and aims to educate, support and advocate for children and parents in one of the poorest, most underserved neighborhoods in Texas. Programs focus on health, early learning, education and community and have included such projects as music lessons from the College of Visual and Performing Arts students; increasing participation in Early Head Start from the College of Human Sciences; Camp Champion, a four-day camp put on by the Department of Health, Exercise & Sport Sciences; and school readiness programs from the College of Education.