Cultivating Healthy Connections
Evaluation Helps an Urban Farming Program Flourish
Last year, from small plots in two Minneapolis neighborhoods and other plots in St. Paul, groups of budding farmers produced 11,000 pounds of vegetables and other crops. The 9 to 18 year olds were members of the Youth Farm and Market Project in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, a program that shows young people how to grow nutritious food and in the process, learn about good health and community service. To learn just how much more than fresh vegetables the program yields, Youth Farm turned to researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Healthy Youth Development/Prevention Research Center (PRC) to evaluate the program.
“Anecdotally, we suspected what we were doing was effective,” said Gunnar Liden, Youth Farm’s executive director. “But we needed evidence that we were actually fulfilling our goals.”
Youth Farm’s goals include promoting a “sustainable approach to life and food,” which contributes to healthy development in young people and the neighborhoods in which they live. The leaders knew they wanted to provide area youth with opportunities for good nutrition and physical activity. But they also wanted participants to understand healthy relationships and be able to form and maintain them. Similarly, the leaders wanted young people to develop close connections to their communities, to understand what it means to make healthy choices—both at mealtime and in everyday life, and to learn leadership skills. Program activities were put in place to help achieve these goals, but even though Youth Farm’s leaders thought the changes were working, they needed the scientific evaluation by PRC researchers to gauge the program’s success.
Since 1996, researchers at the Minnesota PRC have been studying how best to promote adolescent health. Researchers there talk about “connectedness” and its role in healthy development for people and neighborhoods alike.
“Connectedness is about having anchors in life,” said Michael Resnick, PhD, director of the Minnesota PRC. “Youths who are connected have access to parents, teachers, and other adults who care about them, give them guidance, and act as role models,” Dr. Resnick said. “Young people connected to active, caring adults also have learning opportunities that show them how to make a positive difference in their communities.”
Youth with a sense of connectedness can develop a resilience that helps them thrive; then, instead of resorting to violence, risky activities, substance abuse, or other unhealthy behaviors, they know how to find healthy solutions to their problems, Dr. Resnick added. Was Youth Farm nurturing connectedness—to good nutrition and community involvement? The PRC stepped up to analyze the program, which had not been scientifically studied.
“Look in the peer-reviewed literature,” said Minnesota PRC evaluator Nancy Leland, PhD. “One can find gardening programs that teach nutrition, but not ones that show the ripple effects of how gardening can make a community healthier.”
Youth Farm’s leaders say their program offers many ways for people and neighborhoods to connect and grow together. Young farmers become personally invested in the land they work as well as in the food they produce and distribute. Young people may attend different schools and have diverse family backgrounds, but farming gives them an opportunity to meet each other and work together—both in the gardens and at lunchtime, when they gather in the kitchen at a neighborhood school or church and learn how to prepare what they have grown. But while participants and their parents often expressed great enthusiasm for the program—and other parents from the community wanted their children to get involved— it was up to the PRC to determine what young people and their communities truly gained from working with Youth Farm. Were they really better, together?
Complications Crop Up
In 2008, PRC researchers began to evaluate Youth Farm. They designed a survey and gave it to program participants at the start of the 8-week summer program and again when it ended. The initial results helped the researchers refine their questions as well as the process for a second survey given the following summer, which included a comparison group. Participants were asked about nutrition knowledge, farming skills, their thoughts about the community, and their sense of connectedness to community and to the adults in their lives. Surveys were administered to 106 Youth Farm participants and, for comparison, to 42 children taking part in other local, non-farming programs. Results showed that compared with participants in those other programs, Youth Farm members had higher levels of achievement in areas directly related to program goals. For example, Youth Farm participants had increased their knowledge about farming, nutrition, and making healthy choices at mealtime. Before and after their programs, participants of both groups were asked to rate their gardening skills on a scale of zero to three. After the summer programs had ended, the PRC evaluators found that the gardening skills of Youth Farm participants were greater—a statistically significant difference— than those in the comparison group (after accounting for differences in ages between the two groups and how much gardening skills the participants had when they entered their programs). Youth Farm participants aged 12 to 14 years old showed statistically significant improvement in cooking skills, and after completing the program, first-time Youth Farm participants got more moderate exercise than they did before they started farming (based on a statistically significant rise in self-scores taken before and after the program).
“Using the survey to measure achievements like skills learned and knowledge gained was straightforward,” Dr. Leland said, “but measuring subtle gains—like increased connectedness—was complex.”
Evaluators had good indications that increases in connectedness did occur: young people who learned to cook often went home and prepared meals with their families. Youth Farm participants also reported that they thought growing food for neighbors was important—a concept the organizers tried to reinforce for deepening a sense of community connectedness. But measuring connectedness directly was difficult. Youth Farm participants vary widely in age—a characteristic distinctive to this program. While other community programs work with teens or young children, Mr. Liden says, Youth Farm takes kids aged 9 to 18. Tasks are age-specific, so the 9- to 11-year-old “Youth Farmers” may focus on developing farming skills and working in small groups, while the 12- to 13-year-old “All Stars” start to develop mentoring skills. The oldest teens are the “Project LEADers.” While the program content was adjusted to the ages of the participants, costs prevented the researchers from using different versions of the survey according to respondent age, so the youngest participants answered the same questions as the teens. When Dr. Leland and the other evaluators studied the responses of teens who had been in the summer program at least three years, results showed peer-to-peer connectedness scores had increased. But connectedness scores actually decreased among the younger respondents, suggesting they may not have understood complex survey questions, such as, “Are there people my age who accept me the way I am?” To assess the developmental changes in the youngest participants, asking program leaders, teachers, and parents might work better than conducting a survey, Dr. Leland said.
Now Sprouting at Youth Farm
In June 2010, the PRC and Youth Farm partners were awarded a one-year grant from the University of Minnesota for nearly $50,000 to enable program organizers to study the details of their produce distribution.
“It’s very important to everyone involved in Youth Farm that the food grown is eaten by people in the community,” said Dr. Leland. But Youth Farm wants to be certain it is growing the nutritious foods that neighborhood residents would use the most. The distribution research project will engage the youth participants in helping collect data and finding neighbors who want to receive some of the Youth Farm harvests. Including the young participants in this stage of the study can foster their involvement in the neighborhood while helping them gain valuable experience with community-based research, Dr. Leland said.
Youth Farm distributes crops in several ways, depending on the neighborhood in which they are grown. The onions, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, raspberries, lettuce, and other produce grown in the Lyndale locations in Minneapolis, for example, are divided into 15 “family shares” that family members pick up each week. The farmers also sell potatoes and tomatoes to a South Minneapolis café. Participants in Powderhorn Park, however, sell their foods at the Midtown Farmer’s Market, located at the South Minneapolis YWCA. Their crops include rhubarb, lettuce, carrots, onions, collard greens, chard, tomatoes, cilantro, and tomatillos. In the West side of St. Paul, which is home to a large Hispanic community, Youth Farm organizers supply a Mexican market and restaurant named El Burrito Mercado with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, and pursaline. Mr. Liden said that across the sites, the soil quality is excellent. Testing has found no signs of toxic substances like lead or arsenic, and because the soil’s organic composition is so good, project farmers are not required to rotate crops from season to season.
Youth Farm is seeking funding from government agencies and national foundations—in addition to the local funding it now receives—to help acquire new resources and personnel. Youth Farm has a greenhouse and conducts biology classes inside it, as part of the school curriculum at an affiliated elementary school. Mr. Liden says if Youth Farm receives additional funding, the program could build another greenhouse and make the site available to biology classes from other schools.
Dr. Leland said that as part of its commitment to the sustainability of community-partnered projects, the PRC helps Youth Farm identify appropriate grants and apply for them. The effectiveness evidence produced by the evaluation may help make Youth Farm more competitive in seeking grants because they can use evaluation results to describe the benefits that funding can produce. Because the PRC makes evaluation available at a fraction of what the service could cost, community organizations like Youth Farm can afford it and still have enough money in their budgets to offer their variety of services.
“To be able to take a close look at what we do and think about the strategies behind our programs has been incredibly important to us,” Mr. Liden emphasized. “We are learning where we want to be and what we need to improve.” Over the next five years, he hopes his farmers can grow 35,000 pounds of produce— more than tripling 2009 production. He also wants to increase the number of family shares.
“But we don’t want Youth Farm to get too big, too quickly,” he said. “While we are trying to grow and include new neighborhoods that want to participate, we still want to be able to provide the same level of support that we are providing now—which gives us a wonderful sense of connectedness that draws us together.”