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Teen Corps Program Grows Veggies & Community All Summer Long

Published June 20, 2023

“Working at the Conservatory ignited my passion for plants and led me to take a botany class last year,” wrote Wyatt, a 2021 graduate of the Conservatory’s Teen Corps program. Wyatt finished up high school this spring, and has decided to go on to study horticulture in college, all thanks to their summer in our Teen Corps program, a paid urban farming and leadership development internship. 

The Conservatory’s summer Teen Corps program just welcomed another 24 teens like Wyatt, and they’re about to embark on another awesome summer of gardening, growing, and building skills and friendship through horticulture. We sat down with head educator and master gardener, Michele Bailey, to hear all about what the summer has in store for the teens and how you can support them by visiting our weekly Wednesday Farmers Market, now through September 27! 

Teen Corps Members

A new cohort of 24 teens, 15-18 years old and from Columbus City Schools, are just beginning their Teen Corps summer here at the Conservatory. “When they come in, they’re shy, they’re nervous,” explained Michele, “because for most of them, this is their first job.” The teens quickly get to know each other and become a whole lot more comfortable, getting their hands dirty in the soil and growing veggies on-site in the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company Community Garden Campus. 

As part of their summer internship, the teens help to run the weekly Farmers Market, held in the Wells Barn parking lot every Wednesday afternoon through the end of September. “The Farmers Market is part of the living lab as well as the garden,” said Michele. “The garden teaches them about plants and what it’s like to work in a botanical garden–but the Farmers Market is the other part of that skill-building. They learn entrepreneurship, marketing, money handling and customer service. Those skills are so important for young people to learn.”

Since she’s been leading the program, Michele has seen firsthand how a Teen Corps summer can have a transformative impact. Many teens come in with limited exposure to eating and preparing fresh vegetables, especially some of the more uncommon varieties. “They usually haven’t tasted turnips or beets. A lot of kids don’t grow up eating vegetables or they think they hate them,” said Michele.

Teen Corps Members

“One year we had a lot of kohlrabi,” she recalled. “We had like 30 kohlrabi to sell at the market so I challenged them to sell all of it.” Though many had never tasted the cruciferous root veggie before, “one kid made it his mission.” He flagged down passersby to pitch the wonders of kohlrabi to them, and the teens successfully sold all 30 that afternoon. “I made him a button with a picture of kohlrabi and a crown on it afterwards,” Michele laughed. For the rest of the summer, “he was the kohlrabi king.”  

“My biggest overall goal is to build confidence,” said Michele. “A lot of times, they have to go to school and have to do things–but they’re not really in charge. But this program gets them to step up and take charge.” 

The program helps teens build leadership skills, confidence, and gardening knowledge not just through hands-on cultivation, but also through field trips, community service, cooking demos and guest speakers. During the summer, the 2023 cohort will get to take a site visit to the Department of Agriculture to learn about green industry jobs. They’ll have speakers from OSU Extension and Columbus Public Health who will talk about healthy eating and food safety. The Conservatory’s own HR department will help the teens learn how to build a resume, and the Conservatory’s Marketing team will support them in learning about careers in Marketing and how they can promote the Farmers Market. They’ll visit the Economic & Community Development Institute to learn about entrepreneurship and business plans. 

Teen Corps at the Farmers Market

One favorite annual activity is meeting the Green Teens from Highland Youth Garden, a community learning garden in the Hilltop with a similar summer program. The two groups of teens will visit each other’s gardens and share a meal together, helping to build community and connections while learning more about environmental and food justice throughout Columbus. 

“Both Teen Corps and the Farmers Market help build community,” said Michele. In previous years, Teen Corps groups have visited the nearby Eldon and Elsie Ward YMCA to help their summer campers install a community garden. “Last year, we also did a program with Central Community House,” and they beautified and landscaped a church on the Near East side. “I’m hoping this year we can help with some of the community gardens within walking distance of the Conservatory,” said Michele. “We want to help them understand that we all need to do our part to help our communities thrive.” 

You can do your part to help our community thrive by paying the Teen Corps a visit at the Farmers Market this summer! The free market will feature more than 20 vendors selling local produce, baked goods, specialty foods, handmade items, and health & beauty products, along with food trucks and live entertainment. EBT is accepted for all qualifying purchases and matching incentive dollars through the Produce Perks Columbus program are also offered. 

Teen Corps at the Farmers Market

Most importantly, you’ll help the Teen Corps members get a little more comfortable becoming leaders and environmental champions in their community every time you attend. “Visit the Teen Corps booth and ask questions,” encouraged Michele. “Come, shop, and ask about a vegetable!” You might just meet the next kohlrabi king in the making.

Special thanks to our Teen Corps and Farmers Market program sponsors including Franklin County Board of Commissioners, The Champion Companies, and our annual Field to Table event sponsors.

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