In some of the most distressed, urban communities in Columbus, Ohio, something hopeful has taken root. It’s leafy and green, flush with life and promise, sprouting out of verdant towers from which it basks in the light of opportunity.
Quite literally, we are talking about the nutritious vegetables being grown by the Urban GEMS(Gardening Entrepreneurs Mentoring Sustainability) program, a positive youth development initiative founded by Dr. Deanna Wilkinson, a professor at The Ohio State University. In a broader sense, though, this program is growing so much more.
“I developed [the program] two years ago, to work with young people in these communities to grow food,” says Wilkinson, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, “but also to teach them about leadership development, entrepreneurship, academic enrichment and to add a youth component to this holistic community approach that I have been working on for years.”
As designed, Urban GEMS aims to reduce high school drop-out rates by increasing access to educational, personal development and career opportunities for students placed at-risk by their circumstances. By teaching them how to operate aeroponic gardens, which are vertical beds that use artificial light to produce food year-round indoors, the program is engaging the students in active and experiential learning that seeks to address their basic needs.
The students who participate in Urban GEMS come from some of the most economically-depressed areas of Columbus; areas which are plagued by crime and gun violence and which are often food deserts. In settings such as these, children often see little hope for advancement. Urban GEMS is countering this trend in myriad ways, says Wilkinson.
“They’re learning about nutrition and how good they feel when they eat healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables. They then share this with their families and communities. They also do art projects around some of our outdoor gardens, such as mosaic tiles, stepping stones and peace poles. They’re learning leadership skills, responsibilities, how to advocate for themselves and how to advocate for food justice in their communities.”
Individual Urban GEMS groups, which operate out of community centers in Columbus, are structured much like 4H clubs, with students electing officers and holding meetings to make important decisions. The food produced is sold by the group, providing both access to healthy food for their communities and a chance for the students to develop their entrepreneurial skills.
Wilkinson’s inspiration for the program came from her own experience with aeroponic tower gardening. Looking to counteract the effects of seasonal depression, she purchased one of the devices to inject some life and light into her home during the gray and gloomy months of the year, and soon realized the broader utility in the garden’s therapeutic qualities. “I thought that if it helps me, maybe it can help people in the community.”
While reducing high school dropout rates is the immediate goal for Urban GEMS, the broader objective, says Wilkinson, is to make sure that all students have equal access to the kinds of opportunities that will fuel their minds, expand their horizons and strengthen their communities.
“I hope these kids get a chance to follow their dreams and get exposed to different ideas so that their dreams grow bigger. I hope that they’re healthy and that they live a long life and that they will take some little piece from this and give it back to their community and to the world.