Garden teacher Kim Allen offers youth space to grow

Kim Allen at the Bancroft Community Garden. Photo: Sarah Henry.

For four years Kim Allen has served as garden program manager for Berkeley Youth Alternatives (BYA), which provides a minimum-wage, internship program for socio-economically challenged adolescents ages 14 to 18. Some come to the garden through word-of-mouth from family or friends, others as part of mandated community service.

During the school year Allen’s youth garden crew, typically a group of six to eight, work and learn alongside her in two community garden plots in West Berkeley. There’s the half-acre Bancroft Community Garden, which the BYA shares with two dozen community gardeners on Bancroft Way, and the smaller Community Orchard garden on land the nonprofit owns on Bonar Street. The fruit tree garden includes many heirloom varieties, donated by Trees of Antiquity — among them citrus, apples, and pluots. The Bancroft Garden boasts typical farmers’ market fare.

In the summer, BYA offers an eight-week program for a dozen youth, who put in about 20 hours a week. The organization runs a small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) during peak harvest season. It sells flowers and whatever is in abundance in the garden to Bill Briscoe, who owns The Bread Workshop. Briscoe puts surplus fava beans, sunchokes, garlic, and other vegetables to good use in his in-house soups. BYA youth harvest about two to four boxes of produce a week for The Ecology Center’s Farm Fresh Choice program, which serves low-income residents. Every other week the garden provides perishables for a local food bank pick-up point.

Allen, 33, lives in a semi-cooperative house with a garden (that her roommates tend) in walking distance of her job. She hails from a horticulture and outdoor education background and will represent the national grassroots network Rooted in Community at next week’s EcoFarm Conference, where she’ll speak about working with youth in urban farming settings. We talked in the garden earlier this week.


BYA garden crew share a Thanksgiving meal. From left to right: Nahom Fasil, Kithorny Porter, Andranee Nabors, and Davion Barnes. Photo: Kim Allen.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I love working outside and witnessing things grow — both the gardens and the youth. Everything in life is always changing and evolving. There are always new challenges and things to learn. A garden is a good metaphor for life.

What do you like about working with youth in a garden setting?

I like the confidence it gives them; they leave knowing how to create their own garden. They also learn about the life cycle, the value of growing food and the interconnectedness of plants and garden species. Some of our youth come in scared of insects but they leave with an understanding and respect for their role in nature.

Maybe more than anything else the garden is a safe, peaceful place where these adolescents can come and forget about other things — whether it’s personal struggles, academic issues, family problems, or concerns about violence in their communities — and just work together doing physical labor in a social setting.

Are there any misperceptions people have about what you do?

When I tell people that I run a garden program for youth in Berkeley they always assume it’s the Edible Schoolyard, because they’ve heard about that garden. Many people don’t realize that there are school gardens in every public school in Berkeley. And of course that particular garden is beautiful. It’s nice to see what’s possible if you have resources like they do.


Growing greens for the community. Photo: courtesy of BYA.

What do you need?

We’d like to be able to hire more youth and give step raises or incentives to our crew as they move into leadership roles. In terms of equipment: our wheelbarrow is about to fall apart and we can always use tools. We don’t have a truck so it’s a big help if someone with a truck can pick up soil. We can always find jobs for people who can repair things. It’s good to have more money to do the things we want to do, but finding people willing to do physical labor is key.

Are there any wrong assumptions that people make about food in Berkeley?

A lot of people don’t realize that hunger is a real issue in this city. Because Berkeley has a reputation as a food town people forget that there are a lot of poor people here who don’t have access to good food.

Who are your local food heroes?

The people who have the passion and dedication to nourish our under-served communities. I’m thinking of Farm Fresh Choice, run by Gerardo Marin (who just left) and Hunia Bradley. School food reformer and food justice advocate Joy Moore has tremendous positive energy and teaches youth about growing and cooking healthy food. Daniel Miller at Spiral Gardens is another food security activist in our area doing good work. And Willow Rosenthal, who lives in Berkeley now and started City Slicker Farms in Oakland, which builds produce gardens in people’s backyards and sells locally grown produce through its food security program. She’ a role model and a colleague and I admire that she knew when it was time to move on, she worked her arse off doing hard, physical labor at that non-profit and recognized she needed to find balance in her life.

What plans do you have for the garden?

If we could find both the funding and someone to manage it, I would love to put a chicken coop in the garden.

I’d like to move the front fence and open up the entrance so that more people in the neighborhood can come and visit. I’d like to make it a place where people can sit and enjoy the peace we have here.

I’d also like to create a memorial garden space. A lot of youth in our program have dealt with family or friends dying. Violence is a constant in some communities. I’d like the memorial space to evolve, with new and different plants, just as life evolves, but the space would be a permanent refuge and a safe haven in nature.

View a student video of the Berkeley Youth Alternatives garden program.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

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  • Name Withheld

    What a wonderful program! In some ways it reminds me of OBUGS (Oakland Based Urban Gardens) which is one of my favorite Bay Area non-profit organizations.

    For those who want to get involved, you can participate in “drop-in volunteer hours” every Friday, 10:00am-1:00pm. Meet in the Bancroft Garden located on Bancroft Way between Bonar St. and West St. Help with any variety of activities such as weeding, harvesting, planting, sowing, and bed preparation. For more info, call Kim, Garden Program Manager, at (510) 647-0709.

    Though I have to say, I wish they had more accessible volunteering opportunities for those of us that work regular 9-6 jobs. I have to assume that having volunteer hours during a time when most people are working cuts down on the number of available volunteers.

  • laura menard

    Many of BYA youth outreach programs including this one pay the youth to attend. I have some concerns about compliance with the federal rules for grant money they receive.
    1. program evaluation based on meaningful outcomes such as reduced truancy and gang activity and improved rates for graduation from high school
    2. participating youth offenders on probation be ineligible if they re-offend, the program must actively monitoring for re-offending.

  • Native Berkeleyan

    This is a travesty. Berkeley taxpayers support a youth employment program which gives priority to kids who are either “socio-economically challenged” or sentenced to participate by a judge. In other words, Caucasians and Asians, particularly law-abiding ones, need not apply. Didn’t MLK preach that our children should be judged by the “content of their character and not the color of their skin”? One would think that the “progressive” city of Berkeley would not discriminate based on race, but i guess not.

  • Name Withheld

    @Native Berkeleyan

    Do you have any evidence that Caucasians & Asians who apply have been rejected on the basis of the color of their skin? Given how litigious Berkeley residents can be, if that was the case they would have been sued into oblivion a long time ago.

  • Reaux

    Dear Native Berkeleyan,

    What seems like a better investment of public funds: changing the trajectory of those who have lost the ability and motivation to support themselves and interact positively with others before even getting started in life, or ignore inequalities in the early lives of Berkeley youths in order to preserve our so-called color-blindness?

    Sometimes there’s more at work than you can see. I for one truly support what Kim Allen is doing.

  • BYA is a private non-profit 501(c)3 organization. There are many different programs supported by various contracts, grants and donations. The Garden Program in particular is largely supported generously by the Jonas Family Fund for Youth and Families (not by the City of Berkeley). We are in the last year of funding with this grant and looking for other ways to support the program.

    BYA provides much-needed wrap-around support to participants through counseling, case-management, and academic services. Youth voluntarily apply for the internship and must go through an application process. If a young person is in need of completing community service hours, he or she may serve some of the hours working alongside the garden crew. Youth must attend study hall at our center two days per week and maintain adequate grades to continue to participate. Our youth represent a diversity of the population. In the past year we’ve had youth on the crew representing multiple ethnicities, including Korean, Cambodian, Jamaican, Mexican, Ethiopian, and African American backgrounds. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, culture, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

    Drop-in volunteer hours are every Friday, 10-1. We offer occasional weekend workday opportunities. Look for an upcoming mural painting/garden work party in March (details will be posted on the Ecology Center’s Ecocalendar).

  • laura menard


    Youth on probation are eligible, correct?

    what system is in place to monitor for re-offending and/or to coordinate with probation officers?

  • Susan

    Sounds like a cool program!

  • Bruce Love

    The thanksgiving feast spread looks really good.

    How can we help alumni of this program start food service businesses that serve their community? Is that already happening? Dumb idea?

  • merr

    Food, community, the planet, self-care, taking initiative, coming together – this program offers all this and more. Beautiful.

  • Lendri Purcell

    BYA’s garden program is an amazing program available for youth who can use extra guidance and support and who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. BYA recently did all of the flower arrangements for my weeding, a friend’s wedding and for a large event I hosted. The flowers were exquisite and it felt so great to know that the money was also supporting a great program. I would recommending their flower arranging business to anyone.

  • Kevin

    Thank you for all the wonderful comments and the support. To a comment regarding the monitoring of juvenile probationers, BYA has been fortunate to have a Community Probation Officer on-site for the past 12 years. She monitors youth compliance with drug and substance abuse orders as well as anger management orders from the disposing Judge for each youth in the program. (Not all youth in the program are on probation). Unfortunately, Alameda County Probation, like several other governmental entities in the county and throughout California, has had to reduce or eliminate funding for several key staff. This has led to a number of youth throughout the county that are now managed by probation officers with caseloads in the 100s. We are very fortunate that our Community Probation Officer is still able to be in our facility twice per week. On another note, this program receives zero funding from the City of Berkeley and relies on the generous support of private citizens and foundations such as the Jonas Family Fund.