The sound of drums from Woodlawn High School’s band practicing in the distance sets a rhythm to the activity at the nearby two-acre teaching farm, where a handful of students are laying irrigation for a crop of collard greens. The intercity farm offers these students a rare opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the many aspects of farming with the goal of cultivating a generation of community leaders.
This is Woodlawn High School (WHS) Urban Farm. The teaching farm is part of Jones Valley Teaching Farm, an educational nonprofit with a mission to empower young generations through hands-on food education. The organization’s primary program is Good School Food (GSF), an innovative and rigorous food and nutrition program for Pre-K through 12th grade students offered at select Birmingham City Schools. The food education model provides cross-curricular, standards-based content to students during the school day. But what sets GSF apart from other food education programs is that it provides participating schools with state-of-the-art teaching farms, like WHS Urban Farm, and full-time staff who are paid by Jones Valley.
The GSF program began out of the nonprofit’s desire to go beyond their underlying vision of renting urban farms to the public to support food-based initiatives. The organization wanted to make a concentrated effort to drive change within struggling communities in Birmingham. “We wanted to find where we could really dig deep, make a long-lasting difference and see the impact of our work,” says Amanda Storey, executive director of Jones Valley. To do so, Jones Valley needed to instill an appreciation of gardening and homegrown food in students while they were young, and ideally, provide the same support through their entire school experience.
As a result, Jones Valley established GSF in 2012 with the support of corporations like Protective Life, as well as charitable groups, small businesses, and individual donations. Since then, the program has placed GSF instructors and farm labs at six elementary and middle schools in the Birmingham City School district, four of which feed students into Woodlawn High School.
The elementary and middle school farm labs provide an outdoor classroom, as well as free after-school clubs where students can literally get their hands dirty while learning to manage their own garden. By the time they reach Woodlawn High School – currently the only high school involved in the program – they have the opportunity to earn money and class credit by interning at the school’s urban farm. The two-acre site houses a heated and cooled greenhouse, a bio-retention pond, an outdoor classroom and office, and produce processing and storage facilities. The operation is managed by Woodlawn graduate Mohamed Jalloh.
Interns are charged with managing all aspects of the farm, from deciding what fruits and vegetables to grow based on the time of year, sowing produce in the greenhouse, preparing beds, planting and caring for the crops, and harvesting their bounty. Students also operate a farm stand at the site where they sell fresh produce to community members, teachers and fellow students. As managers of this market, students gain hands-on business experience – from sales and marketing to operations and finance. Money earned is put back into the teaching farm.
The internship program is paid for by Jones Valley and overseen by Program Director Scotty Feltman, who also works as an Environmental Science teacher at the high school. Feltman transferred to the high school three years ago to help establish Woodlawn Urban Farm. Currently in its second year of operation, the program runs like a well-oiled machine. On a warm fall afternoon, Feltman sits in the outdoor classroom watching his crew set up irrigation in one of the beds. “They know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve got it under control,” he says. The key to keeping interns engaged is to keep the atmosphere positive, which provides opportunity for them to stimulate their own intellectual curiosity.
“A year ago I had no idea what Swiss chard was or that there were different varieties of kale,” says Jerick Hamilton, a senior at Woodlawn and second-year intern at the farm. Now, he can name a dozen varieties of greens that are planted among the cilantro, fennel, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and carrots. “If you grow it, you’re going to want to eat it. There’s just something about the way it feels to eat what you’ve grown,” he says.
Jerick never expected to find a new level of confidence working at the urban farm, or to discover how his job could set a course for his future. “But, I learned how to become involved in my community.”
And that’s exactly what Jones Valley aims to cultivate in students. “My goal is for these kids to take what they’re dong here and reinvent it in their own communities,” Feltman says. “I want this experience to help them to be leaders and business owners one day.”