Participants of the Prairie Farm Corps youth development program are growing, harvesting and selling organic vegetables while making a difference in their community. This multi-faceted development program, based on the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm in Grayslake, offers paid work opportunities and job training on an organic farm for diverse teens from central Lake County.
Prairie Farm Corps participants are immersed in all aspects of sustainable vegetable production beginning with planting seeds in the spring, caring for the plants all summer, and distributing produce to customers. Each week the teens harvest their certified organic vegetables and sell them at the Libertyville Farmers Market on Thursdays between 7 a.m. -- 1 p.m. and also through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) in Round Lake.
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Adam Gertz of Gurnee, age 17, recently helped to facilitate a WIC FMNP session and found the experience rewarding and eye-opening.
"I enjoyed growing food before, but now I feel like it has an even bigger meaning -- it's fulfilling in more ways than one," Gertz said.
Working collaboratively with the Lake County Health Department, Prairie Farm Corps participants have the opportunity to contribute to their local community by providing healthy, fresh vegetables through the WIC program. Prairie Farm Corps participants facilitate a weekly interactive discussion on vegetable preparation ideas with people at the Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center in Round Lake who receive WIC FMNP fresh vegetable vouchers and other WIC benefits. The Prairie Farm Corps youth also entertain the children with a fun skit about nutrition and eating healthy vegetables. At the end of the program, the recipients of the FMNP vouchers have the option to exchange them immediately for fresh organic vegetables.
Prairie Farm Corps participant Maira Murguia of Round Lake, age 17, helped distribute the vegetables recently.
"The box was really nice, and I liked how we packed it. Honestly, I wanted a box for myself." Prairie Farm Corps participants do also bring vegetables home to their families.
Approximately 1/3 of the Prairie Farm Corps participants are recruited through Round Lake High School's English as a Second Language Program. While the students continue to build their English language skills through the Prairie Farm Corps, their Spanish language skills have been helpful in translating information for the families who attend the WIC FMNP sessions. This ability to facilitate communications has helped the teens understand that they are a valuable part of their community.
As a youth development program, the Prairie Farm Corps focuses on building job skills such as customer service and communication. For most of the participants, the Prairie Farm Corps is their first job. Interactions with customers at the Libertyville Farmers Market and at the Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center in Round Lake provide real life teaching moments for the participants. Every program component is designed to provide job skills training and empower participants to thrive in future pursuits while contributing to their communities.
Before heading to the Libertyville Farmers Market, students are prepared with customer service tips such as greeting customers, making eye contact, and communicating clearly. Allison Smith of Grayslake, age 17, reflected upon the importance of having adequate product knowledge at the market.
"The more you know about a vegetable, the more likely someone is to purchase it," she said.
Prairie Farm Corps youth also learn healthy eating habits and gain practical experience in cooking fresh vegetables. Participants take turns working on the kitchen crew that harvests fresh produce and transforms it into healthy lunches for the rest of the group. The cooking component is lead by Alex Aranda of Grayslake, age 23, one of the Prairie Farm Corps crew leaders and a culinary arts student at the College of Lake County.
"I get to harvest food from the field and cook it! What's not to like? I embrace the opportunity to interact with the youth from the surrounding communities in teaching the basics of food safety, sanitation, and nutrition. This has proven to be a challenging, but very rewarding, experience," he said.
Local residents can support the Prairie Farm Corps by purchasing healthy, certified organic vegetables at the Libertyville market on Thursday mornings from 7 a.m. -- 1 p.m. The market runs through Oct. 17, and is located on Church Street between Milwaukee (IL Route 21) and Brainerd in the middle of downtown Libertyville. Ample free parking is available in a variety of municipal lots near the market. Come early for the best selection of organic vegetables grown by the Prairie Farm Corps.
In addition to the Prairie Farm Corps, the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm leads a variety of outdoor farm-based education programs on a working organic farm in Grayslake. The mission of the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm is to educate and inspire people to value healthy food, land and community through experiences on the farm. Information about all Learning Farm programs is at www.prairiecrossing.com/farm/learning.php.