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A Thriving Mission: Combating Baltimore City’s Food Deserts Through Education and Urban Farming

DESERTS THROUGH EDUCATION AND URBAN FARMING

Research from the National Summer Nicola Norman Learning Association (NSLA) revealed Community Program that youth that are not psychologically Coordinator engaged by some form of summer Institute for Integrative program activity during the three-month Health period tend to fall behind in the areas of math and reading (2019). Their research also revealed that on average, teachers spend at least 3 weeks getting these students caught up. This disproportionately affects youth from low-income backgrounds who, in the area of reading, tend to require another 2-3 months of catch-up. Additionally, a 2014 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that minority children tend to gain weight twice as fast as their counterparts during the summer months if sedentary (Davidson & Adler, 2014). In an effort to combat these findings, there are a number of projects and programs cropping up throughout the country aimed at keeping students academically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually engaged throughout the summer months. Mission Thrive Summer (MTS) is one of those programs. Going into its 8th year, the MTS program, a collaboration between The Institute for Integrative Health (TIIH) and Civic Works ‘Real Food Farm’ (RFF), seeks to address these issues through an immersive summer program model that engages thirty rising ninth graders in the City of Baltimore by equipping them with practical, hands-on life skills. The program immerses student participants in cooking and nutritional education, agricultural awareness, the importance of physical fitness and community engagement while equipping them with the necessary tools for effectively managing stress. All of these areas have a focused intent on promoting a healthy and upward trajectory as these students enter high school and for life beyond their secondary education. This work, learn, and earn program is made possible by way of our sponsors, the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development (MOED) and ‘Youthworks’, who have partnered in an effort to provide summer employment to youth throughout Baltimore. This project dealt with stakeholders managing human resources from the city.

“Our intention was to get our student participants in the habit of cultivating a balanced and calm psychological state at the start of the day. This was also an effort made to drive home the fact that how we as humans start our day is often times what informs the trajectory of the remainder of it.”

The planning process for MTS is a collaborative one. TIIH provides nutrition and cooking educators, while Civic Works ‘Real Food Farm’ provides the program with experienced agriculturalists. At the start of 2019, we held meetings monthly to discuss and craft with Real Food Farm, which is our process for recruiting of our primary human resources. We sought to hire four, preferably college-age, ‘crew leaders’ who would be responsible for leading a ‘crew’ of 6-7 rising high school students. Ideally, successful candidates would have an interest in health education and youth development with a keen focus on ensuring that student participants leave the program with a holistic sense of what wellness means. After fishing through numerous applications and selecting who we thought would be great additions to the MTS team, we implemented our plans for training and development. To ensure that crew leaders were adequately prepared to serve the programs participants, they underwent a mandatory 2-week leadership training led by team building and leadership experts appointed by TIIH. The trainings were small, focused, and designed to bring out the best in our crew leaders --which in-turn would help them bring out the best in our student participants-- increase their capacity for effective leadership, maintain a positive and nurturing attitude and demeanor, as well as effectively detect and solve problems. This is how we were able to ensure both our internal and external stakeholders that our (human) resources were equipped with all of the tools necessary to execute MTS in a way leaves any and every one who comes in contact with it, a bit more self-actualized.

“The program also sought to teach our youth that thoughtful, healthy, and productive behaviors are both appreciated and rewarded.”

With all of the movement surrounding the on-boarding and resource development processes, the first day of the program crept up on us rather quickly. Upon us now was the day that we put all of our planning, recruiting, and resource priming to work and execute our collective vision. Each one of our days at MTS began with a morning energizer. This could include some form of semi-vigorous exercise, yoga, or even meditation. Our intention was to get our student participants in the habit of cultivating a balanced and calm psychological state at the start of the day. This was also an effort made to drive home the fact that how we as humans start our day is often times what informs the trajectory of the remainder it. Post our daily morning energizer, the collective group was broken up and divided into their four crews. Each crew was given their morning assignment which pertained to one of three themes: diet & nutrition, cooking & food preparation, or agriculture. Three crews would be assigned a task related to one of these three themes, while the fourth would work to prepare a communal lunch for all to enjoy later in the day. This daily practice of each team having a responsibility either to learn or prepare a communal meal for the whole teaches the youth participants the importance of collectivism and shared knowledge as well as the more obvious theme under which they were working that day. For many of our participants, this was their first time in the kitchen preparing a thoughtful meal intended not only to feed themselves, but the community surrounding them.

Upon serving the meal, the group, along with the cooking instructor(s) guided them through the meal’s preparation, and would give a short presentation to the other students regarding the process of preparation, impediments, and the final outcome. This practice was implemented in an effort to enhance participants public speaking skills, get them thinking critically about processes (not just outcomes), and cultivated a sense of pride in their culinary creations. Youth participants had the opportunity to participate in what we called the ‘Thrive Lab’. The ‘Thrive Lab’ was created to help our youth discover and explore invaluable life skills through the engagement of a bevvy of invited motivational speakers. The speakers we invited would facilitate activities or dig deep into interactive, age-appropriate discussions about issues and themes that are often omitted from school textbooks and academic curriculums. To name a few, speakers explored themes such as the development of healthy boundaries, alternative knowledge acquisition strategies, time management and emotional intelligence. In addition to all of the fun and interactive activities, we also implemented ‘crew rotations’; these rotations consisted of housekeeping activities such as cleaning, peer-to-peer progress feedback, and the planning of community outreach events and initiatives. One of the youth initiatives proposed and executed this summer, was in partnership with Baltimore’s ‘Moveable Feast’, that was the preparation of over 2,000 meals for chronically ill Baltimore city residents. Additionally, our youth participants managed to facilitate a ‘game day’ for elementary student summer camp attendees at the Greenmount West Community Center (GWCC). The program emphasized expectations from participants via learning and exercising the core values of teamwork, accountability, flexibility, and healthy decision making. The program, as I mentioned earlier, also sought to teach our youth that thoughtful, healthy, and productive behaviors are both appreciated and rewarded. In this instance, the reward for the

consistent display of such behaviors was the receipt of a modest stipend given to participants. As a result of TIIH and RFF’s efforts to plan and execute the MTS program, our survey statistics (collected from pre and post survey results) indicate a 50% decrease in students perceived stress levels and a more than 70% increase in our youth who indicated increased confidence in their ability to prepare a healthy meal (Mission Thrive Summer, 2019). TIIH conducted a three-month follow up student follow-up post their participation in the MTS program. This follow-up consisted of face-to-face interviews with each student in their new high school setting where we sought to gauge student’s healthy emotional, physical, and nutritional habit retention in addition to getting feedback on their overall program participation experience.

“There are a number of projects and programs cropping up throughout the country aimed at keeping students academically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually engaged throughout the summer months. Mission Thrive Summer (MTS) is one of those programs.”

Here at TIIH, we embark on a wide array of projects related to health and wellness. As their community program coordinator, I am responsible for utilizing my understanding of what has and has not worked in the past when it comes to the integration and management of not one, but multiple projects at a time using integrative project management processes such as communication, stakeholder and time management. Out of all of the projects that I have had the pleasure of managing at TIIH, the MTS program is the one nearest to my heart. The management of MTS is a vehicle through which I am able to productively contribute to the betterment of Baltimore (the city that raised me and that I love so dearly), while equipping our young people with the tools necessary to break the cycles of violence, ignorance, disease, and low self-esteem that have plagued our communities for years. It is my hope that the MTS program can be agent of change amongst our city’s youth in-turn inspiring a brighter tomorrow for the city of Baltimore.

References:

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Shaping Summertime Experiences: Opportunities to Promote Healthy Development and Well-Being for Children and Youth. Shaping Summertime Experiences: Opportunities to Promote Healthy Development and Well-Being for Children and Youth. Retrieved from: https://www.summerlearning.org/knowledge-center/ shaping-summertime-experiences-opportunities-to-promote-healthy-development-and-well-being-for-children-and-youth/

Franckle, R., Adler, R., & Davison, K. (2014, June 12). Accelerated Weight Gain Among Children During Summer Versus School Year and Related Racial/Ethnic Disparities: A Systematic Review. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://www. cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2014/13_0355.htm