Editor’s note: A version of this post has also appeared on Noah Sheetz’s blog.
“Everyone should know that these vegetables were Schenectady grown.” Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton seemed more like a visiting foreign dignitary in his silk tie and linen dress pants than our mayor as he walked around the Roots and Wisdom garden with his tour guide for the day. Roots and Wisdom annually holds open house events where the public is invited to the garden for youth guided tours, innovative vegetable samplings and “Veggie Theatre”. This year’s “Veggie Theatre” has included skits about the benefits of eating organic food and, not surprisingly, the devastation of late blight on New York’s tomato crop.
Schenectady is an urban mix of older rundown neighborhoods and areas like those around Proctor’s theatre which are a testament to an ongoing cultural and urban revival. Just off of State Street, past the Family Dollar as one enters the gateway to Central Park, lies Roots and Wisdom’s Fehr Avenue Garden–a one acre oasis of organic vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
Roots and Wisdom co-founder Leslie Wiedmann-Herd developed her experience with agriculture during the 1980′s while farming in California. In 2005 she, along with partners Debbie Forester and Christine Horigan, recognized a need to engage young people in meaningful work and started the Youth and Agriculture program. “Our goal was to engage youth in meaningful work caring for the land that would enable them to learn more about themselves and their community.”
At the heart of the Roots and Wisdom youth program is sustainability. The youth learn about why eating locally is important and how the cycle of small scale agricultural production, from composting, fertilization, and sustainable harvesting, works. But there’s more to the program than planting seeds and harvesting vegetables. The youth learn about the business side of growing vegetables by selling produce at two of Schenectady’s farmers markets and to restaurants like Cella Bistro and the Governor’s Mansion in Albany. This summer it has rained more in upstate New York than it has in decades, but every Tuesday and Thursday the youth of Roots and Wisdom weather the latest storm, patiently knocking off the accumulating water that collects on the tent canopy above their market stand. They are never discouraged by the occasional dismal turnout of customers.
The youth also learn from self exploratory exercises (“If I were an employer would I hire myself?”), about cooking, creating tea blends by drying herbs and raspberry leaves, infusing water and vinegar with the essence of herbs and spices, and about the art of canning.
On the day that I met Mayor Stratton, an idea occurred to me about canning vegetables and youth programs. It might have been easier to spend a day with the youth at Roots and Wisdom conducting a canning workshop with their Schenectady grown garden vegetables but I instead decided that it would be much more interesting to take a vegetable like beets from the Roots and Wisdom garden and preserve it at a canning workshop with the Youth Organics program back in Albany. The idea was that there could be collaboration between agriculture and youth programs.
This summer, Roots and Wisdom has had limited success with the beets that I had hoped to take back with me–so I decided to preserve onions instead. That day, the Youth Organics and I preserved five bunches of onions from Roots and Wisdom into Minted Onion Rings. They will be served at the New York Executive Mansion during the 2010 State of the State reception.
CAA Contributor Noah Sheetz is the Executive Chef of the Governor’s Mansion in Albany New York. In addition to his duties at the Mansion, Noah is involved in community outreach to educate youth in the community with healthy cooking presentations and interactive workshops that promote organic gardening and eating locally. You can find him at his blog, Hudson and Saratoga Local Foods.