Farming for Good: Why Work Is Essential for Teens to Develop and Leave Poverty

"Want to see my onions?"

Jennifer leads me through the plots of damp earth: past planters bursting with hearty kale, low-growing stalks heavy with Japanese eggplant, to the springs of bright green pitching up through the ground.

It's a sign of hope in one, young woman's life that up until now has been without roots.

Jennifer is one of five teenagers spending her summer days at Philadelphia's Lutheran Settlement House as part of the Teens 4 Good program. Every morning, she arrives ready to work the patch of green in the heart of the city. But every night, the 17-year-old returns to the homeless shelter for women where she's living now -- an abusive parent a not-so-distant memory.

"These are Sun Golds," she says, plucking two tomatoes -- bright yellow like tiny gumballs -- from an improbably lush vine just next to the parking lot. They erupt with flavor more powerful and sweet than anything you can buy from the supermarket.

Jennifer's the one in the program who has the best chance of making it -- if she wants to -- as an urban farmer, bringing sustainable food from these small plots of land. She's got a lot inside her that she doesn't know.

Teens 4 Good, a program of the Federation of Neighborhood Centers, is supported by ARAMARK Building Community -- helping young teens to rise out of poverty and learn job skills. With help from ARAMARK's philanthropic and volunteer program, we're turning vacant lots into farms that support at-risk youth with meaningful jobs to help them grow. It's often overlooked just how much a job means to a teen, and youth unemployment leaves so many children without the necessary life skills and experiences to hold a job in adulthood. But here, we're able to cultivate the nascent entrepreneurial spirit in these youths. Working teens learn the fundamental skills they'll need to hold a job later in life. For many of these young people, this is their very first paycheck.

For a teenager like Jennifer, that first job is a critical life experience. When she first started with us several weeks ago, she'd find ways to avoid the work: faking sick was a common ploy. Now, she's learning that every morning at 9:00 a.m. sharp, I'm waiting for her and expect her to give this job her all. And now she does.

Ours is just one of six urban farms across Philadelphia providing more than 8,000 pounds of produce to 25 low-income neighborhoods with desperately limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When our squash or collard greens or lettuce hit the shelves in grocery stores or farmer's markets, they're often sold out within the day. Residents who have been forced to rely on canned goods from their local food cupboard for years are grateful to have something fresh to cook or eat. At our Teens 4 Good site, we often serve our best produce to the seniors who spend their days at our Lutheran Settlement House community center: our teens sharing stories and meals from our garden with people five times their age.

This summer, we're taking our harvest from the garden to the general population. Last year, Teens 4 Good created an organic iced tea using the herbs and fruit from our program's gardens around Philadelphia. Called True Leaf tea, we've spent the past few weeks working with our teens to develop a marketing plan and website.

David is sketching out a label for the bottle, still sweat-soaked from his morning work hauling buckets and hoses in the garden.

"See, I traced those lines so it wouldn't get crooked," he says, showing off a neo-gothic font of a logo for True Leaf Tea. At 13 years old, he shows promising talent and a strong opinion when it comes to art and design. I hand him another proposed logo: an image of a leaf growing over the skyline of Philadelphia. He crinkles his nose and shakes his head: not good enough, we need to do better. He's the boss.

Each garden has a team, and last Friday, they all competed to present the winning plan to business leaders from ARAMARK and other local companies at the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. The winning label and marketing plan will go into place and will go on sale at local farmer's markets, festivals and grocery stores. And while our team's presentation did not win, we can always compete in next year's challenge.

Win or lose, it's a new chance for these teens to see that they are more than their own muscle; they can earn their paycheck just by putting their minds to work. It's a lesson that can only be learned through employment in those critical years, to know that their ideas hold value and worth and can help them break the cycle of poverty for themselves.

Note: The names of underage teens were changed.