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Natural Awakenings South Central Pennsylvania

Harvesting the Power of Youth in South Central PA

Aug 03, 2016 11:52PM

Farming is in Heidi Witmer’s blood. The 36-year-old grew up in a South Central Pennsylvania farming family and spent her young adulthood sowing seeds far from home. “I majored in international peace studies in college, and then worked with the United Nations in Congo and Rwanda,” says Witmer. “They were working to reconstruct post-genocide, and food access was a major part. I really fell in love with agriculture as community development work.”

When she returned to the states, Witmer began running a school for girls with emotional support issues, where part of the curriculum involved therapeutic agriculture. In working with her students, she witnessed firsthand a problem that affects not only young people, but the larger community and economy, as well.

“I realized the work we were doing stopped in the summer and my students would become more disconnected and even depressed. They’d come back to us unfocused, at best,” says Witmer. “My students were unable to get a summer job. I realized we have the lowest youth employment rates in 50 years; only one in four will have a paying position before 22. This is a major crisis.”

Witmer says that youth unemployment is only half the problem. She also saw the future of farming growing bleak as young people move away from agriculture. She set out to create a solution, launching LEAF, which stands for Leadership, Education And Farming, in the summer of 2013 in Carlisle.

The LEAF project is a youth employment program that works with community partners to provide paid internships to teens 14 to 18 years old, working alongside area farmers and chefs. Throughout the summer, 12 interns and two youth leaders participate in every level of the local food system, planting and harvesting crops on the farm, selling produce to restaurants, teaching cooking workshops and serving at hunger relief organizations.

“At the core, we’re cultivating young leaders through the rigorous work of the food system,” Witmer says. “We select an intensely diverse group of youth. They come from eight different school districts and are very diverse in terms of race, class, religion and personality.” The teens undergo a rigorous application process to secure a spot in the program. This summer, Witmer received 75 applications for the 14 positions.  

Throughout the eight-week internship, the teens learn to cultivate a wide array of crops using traditional farming methods. About half the harvest is sold to local restaurants, creating much of the revenue that powers the program. LEAF also works with two area preschools, providing produce for student lunches and snacks. The other half is donated to LEAF’s nearly two dozen hunger relief organization partners.

In the summer of 2015 alone, Witmer says, the program fed more than 3,000 people in need. That work continues long after the end of summer, because the interns also learn to can and preserve food that will sustain the food pantries and soup kitchens for months. One day a week, interns work with a local chef, learning to create dishes using the produce they’ve cultivated. On Thursdays, the teens visit partner farms to learn about different aspects of agriculture such as dairy production and cheese making.

“The mission is to connect youth to their food,” says Witmer, and it’s working. “They’re eating produce 91 percent more than they did before. They’ve started caring about where their food comes from. They’re making changes in the way their whole family eats.”

The program is also succeeding at filling the gap created by the youth employment vacuum in the region. The LEAF interns are learning the fundamentals of employment: timeliness, efficiency and teamwork that they will carry into their future careers.

“I have this incredible opportunity to watch people grow up every day,” Witmer says. “They’re so proud of what they’re doing. It’s really meaningful, and it impacts a lot of people beyond themselves. They have a seat at the adult table for the first time.”

To learn more about LEAF or to support the youth development program, visit leafprojectpa.org.

Kate Morgan is a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.

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