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.
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.
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.