Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Growing Sites: The Use of Gardening and Farming in Youth Development Projects

A major Paper submitted to the Faculty of Environmental Studies in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Magisteriate in Environmental Studies

By Danielle Andrews
Submitted on Sept. 21st, 2001
York University, North York, Ontario, Canada.
Gerda Wekerle (paper supervisor)

The "Abstact" "Table of Contents" and "Conclusion" are included on this HTML page.

The complete thesis (35,000 words) is available as a Word doc (360K) here.


Throughout North America, there is a growing movement of community-based youth farm and garden projects. Young people are participating in the transformation of their communities, as well as themselves by growing and distributing healthy, organic vegetables. The involvement of young people in farms and gardens is not a new phenomenon, and examples of their participation on farms, and in schools and organizations such as the 4-H club are examined within this major paper. However, it is also demonstrated that the organizations that use farms and gardens as a youth development venue are somewhat different from these previous movements, in terms of their goals, their approaches to education as well as their focus on food security issues.

Within the holistic education field, theorists have argued for the need for educational approaches that focus both on personal development issues, as well as critical thinking and acting skills. In particular, holistic educator John Miller has developed a model that is helpful as a means of looking at different approaches to education. Miller distinguishes between three approaches to education, which he labels "transmission", "transaction" and "transformation". Focusing in particular on the efforts of "The Food Project", a youth organization out of Boston, Massachusetts, I examine how these youth garden and farm sites can be used in a "transformative" manner. Drawing on my experiences as a staff person with this organization, interviews conducted with six of their youth as well as their co-director, as well as my participation in "Rooted in Community", a yearly conference for youth and their adult allies involved in this type of work, I examine the development, the goals and educational approaches adopted within this movement.


As a student in the faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, my studies have revolved around the use of gardens and farm sites and food production activities as catalysts for social change. My area of concentration is entitled "Education for Social Change Through Agriculture". I have focused on the work of theorists from a wide range of fields, to support my contention that horticultural and agricultural activities can be important tools through which transformational education can occur.

This paper is the culmination of these studies, and brings together work from various fields that I have focused my studies within. My three components within my plan of study include:

1. People/plant relationships
2. Organic agriculture/horticulture
3. Education for social change

This major paper draws from each of these components, relating the work of theorists from each of these fields, to my findings on the youth farm and garden movement. This paper allowed me to fulfill three objectives within my plan of study that had not yet been completed.

Within the people/plant relationships field, I have focused on theorists from fields such as eco-psychology, landscape architecture, horticultural therapy and community gardening. Of my objectives within this component, this paper fulfills the following:

Objective 1.1:To examine some of the ways that agricultural and horticultural activities can be beneficial for both individuals and communities (i.e., horticultural therapy, community economic development projects, environmental education), in order to become a better-informed advocate for these types of projects.

During my studies at York, I have researched and written papers on topics such as horticultural therapy, the community economic development projects undertaken by Foodshare (a Toronto non-profit organization that runs several food-related projects), and children's gardening projects. This paper allowed me to apply the work of people/plant theorists such as Charles Lewis, and Rachel Kaplan to an area that has been largely ignored by this group. Through these efforts, I was able to fulfill the objective within this people/plant component.

Within my second component (organic agriculture/horticulture), one of the objectives that I sought to complete was:

Objective 2.3: To familiarize myself with a variety of farm and garden projects throughout North America that focus on various aspects of community development, skill development, and environmental and critical education, in order to have a greater understanding of the possible uses of gardens and farms as community development and educational projects.

I have been fortunate during my time at York University to have the opportunity to visit, speak with, and work with a variety of organizations involved in different aspects of community-based food production. This paper further allowed me to familiarize myself with youth projects within this field. I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to attend the Rooted in Community conference in Detroit in the summer of 2001, where I was able to learn more about the activities of youth organizations from throughout the United States. During these past months of research and writing, I have been able to learn about, speak with, and write about a wide variety of programs that I would not otherwise be aware of.

Finally, within my "education for social change" component, this paper gave me the opportunity to fulfill the following objective:

Objective 3.2: To investigate how transformational education can occur through agricultural and horticultural activities, in order to support an argument for the need for farm and garden projects of this sort.

While at York, I have taken several education classes through which I became familiar with the work of holistic, environmental, experiential, and critical educational theorists. This paper gave me an opportunity to apply the theoretical work of these theorists to the field of youth farm and garden projects.

Growing Sites: Pulling it together

This research paper gave me an opportunity to focus the work I have undertaken during the past two years. Through my examination of the youth farm and garden movement, I was able to draw on, and relate the work of theorists from all three of my components, and begin the important task of documenting the development of this dynamic and powerful movement.

Table of Contents:


Youth and Agriculture: Educational Opportunities Methodology My Goals and Objectives

Chapter 1: Transforming Lives through Education

The Thee T's: Approaches to Education
Ecological Literacy
Experiential Education and Action Projects
Critical Education
Moving Forward: Transformational Education in Practice

Chapter 2: Youth Farms and Gardens

What are youth farms and gardens?
The 4-H Club
The Development of Farm Schools
Community Farm and Garden Movement
Rooted in Community: Young People Cultivating Change
From 4-H to RIC: Forging New Directions

Chapter 3: Cultivating Change through action and education: The Food Project

About the Food Project
Meaningful Work
Farming and Gardening
Transformative Learning Through Agriculture


Linear Thinking and Intuition
Mind and Body
Domains of Knowledge
Self and Community
Individuals and the Earth
self and Self
The Need for Transformative Principles
Future Directions For Research:
Urban and Suburban: Interpreting Experience
Canada and the U.S
Holistic Education: Beyond Schooling
A Vision for Transformative Education Through Farms and Gardens


"Since our break with nature came with agriculture, It seems fitting that the healing of culture begin with agriculture, fitting that agriculture take the lead."
Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to this Place

While holistic educators have written about the need for education that focuses both on personal development as well as critical thinking and action skills, it has been suggested that, in actual practice, this movement places greater emphasis on self-actualization than the more concrete skills necessary for creating social change. Both at the Food Project in Boston, as well as through my limited exposure to the work of other similar organizations, it seems to me that many of these groups have successfully created programs that avoid this dichotomy. While these organizations may not necessarily label their educational approach as "holistic" or "transformative", the youth involved are leaving with both the critical skills and understanding of themselves that holistic educators speak of. It also seems that, while this work could clearly take place through venues other than organic farming or gardening sites, the nature of this work lends itself well to this type of approach. While this type of setting does not necessarily imply a transformative approach to education, there are a number of characteristics about this type of work and space that are useful in terms of creating a holistic learning environment.

Of key significance within a transformative approach to education, is the emphasis on relationships. In The Holistic Curriculum (1996), John Miller distinguishes six areas that he feels that the fostering of relationships is particularly important. These include:

1. The relationship between linear thinking and intuition
2. The relationship between mind and body
3. The relationship between domains of knowledge
4. The relationship between self and community
5. The relationship between individuals and the earth
6. The relationship between self and Self

Miller (1996, p.8) stresses the importance of making these connections so that the student "gains both an awareness of them and the skills necessary to transform the relationships where it is appropriate" (1996, p.8). Through the process of understanding how these relationships work and influence each other, students are more able to comprehend their world, and their place in it. Hopefully, this understanding will help prepare people to be ready to take action to better their surroundings. In his book, Miller looks at how these relationships can be forged through various mediums, focusing a great deal on different art forms, and particularly the use of art at Waldorf schools. To demonstrate how organic farming and gardening can be used as a means of creating and strengthening these relationships, we will look at each of these six areas and how they relate to sustainable agricultural and horticultural activities.

Linear Thinking and Intuition

Within this category, the teacher strives to create a balance between cognitive problem-solving skills, with a more personal, direct understanding of an issue. Miller defines intuition as "direct knowing" (Miller, 1996, p.96), and suggests that tools such as visualization and meditation be used as a means to develop this sense of understanding. Linear, or cognitive thinking, while an important aspect of preparing people for becoming agents of social change, is not enough. Combined with the development of intuitive thinking, these processes together can result in a deeper level of understanding, and a stronger ability to act. Miller (1996, p.105) describes the introduction of intuition into curriculum as a way to infuse it with "soul, life and vitality".

People/plant theorists have written extensively about the transformative nature of gardening. Horticulturalist Charles Lewis (1996, p.63) has written that "people and plants are joined together in the garden, which is created with hands and back as well as head and heart, love, attention, and caring- all opportunities for deep personal involvement". Planning, executing, and managing gardens and farms requires cognitive thinking skills but also seems to result in the development of deep relationships between the plants and gardeners. As Rachel Kaplan (1984) has suggested, I think this is particularly true in organic systems, where gardeners and farmers need to be particularly attentive to their garden's needs.

Mind and Body

In chapter 3 of this paper, I talked about Miller's (1996) focus on the mind/body connection, and the role it plays in the holistic curriculum. He Argues that the mainstream educational system has lead to the creation of a rift between mind and body, by overemphasizing cognitive development and by not working on the development of the body. Miller (1996, p.110) goes on to state that those physical programs that do exist, often reinforce this separation, and points to research that emphasizes the need for physical education that will "concentrate on developing a person's body image or the ability to connect the body to our consciousness" (p.110).

While Miller focuses on dance, drama and "eurythmy" as means of reconnecting the body and mind, agriculture and gardening can have a similar effect. In particular, the activities undertaken are a useful way of promoting "mindfulness", the process of focusing on particular activities in a thoughtful manner. Miller (1996) talks about the role of mindfulness in developing the connection between our body and mind, and points out that any activity, such as washing dishes or making tea, can be done with a level of awareness that encourages this. Farming and gardening, however, pushes participants to be mindful, because even the simplest tasks, require consciousness. In chapter 3, I pointed out that, without careful attention to detail, weeding a young crop may result in the loss of the desired plants, along with the weeds. Alternatively, the smaller weeds may be missed, requiring a second pass of the bed a week later. So many other tasks in the garden and farm require a similar level of awareness. These physical tasks connect the mind and body in ways that are similar to dance and drama.

Domains of Knowledge

Integrating subject matter, and integrating the person with the subject matter, is another important relationship discussed by Miller. Within other educational frameworks, subject matter is often presented in neat categories; little discussion is made of how economics, history and English might be interrelated. Each topic is taught as an independent and separate entity. Within the holistic framework, the teacher strives to make links between topics, demonstrating the complexities of the issues being taught through an examination of the variety of forces that shape it.

In a footnote in chapter 2 of this paper, I mentioned an organization out of Philadelphia called the Farmer's Market Trust, which works with middle-school classes, helping them to set up small-scale agricultural enterprises such as salad greens businesses, greenhouse vegetables and salad bars in their school cafeterias. At the 2001, Rooted in Community Conference in Detroit, I spoke briefly one of the organizers of this project. She emphasized that the organisation sought to demonstrate to students how the subjects they learned in school would be useful in the business world, as well as how the subjects were related. In creating their business plans, for instance, the students would need to use math skills, english skills as well as business and basic science skills to demonstrate how their project would work. Agricultural and horticultural activities require a wide variety of skills and domains of knowledge, this project by the Farmer's market Trust demonstrates how one organisation is working to emphasize this interdependence.

Other educators have focused on the use of action projects as a means of bringing subjects to life and "integrate learning from the various subjects in a meaningful way" (Fountain, 1995, p. 297). At the Food Project, the service aspect of their work reminded participants that their physical labour on the land had meaning. The workshops had a similar effect, and allowed for critical analysis of their involvement in food security work. The efforts made by this organization to integrate the workshops, field work and service work highlights another way that agricultural activities can be used as a means of integrating subjects, and connecting students to subjects.

Self and Community

Within the holistic tradition, there is also a focus on making links between the student and the community. The "community", might refer to the student's classroom, it could also be the school, and the community in which the school is located. The involvement of the student within this larger arena can be an important part of a holistic curriculum.

One of the main emphasises within the community gardening literature field is on the building of communities. Community gardens bring people together, gardeners "share their stories and their feelings, first about their garden and then about themselves. People begin to feel a part of the solution to environmental dangers and neighbourhood decay. When people bond and form associations the ultimate benefit of self-reliance can be realised" (Warman, 1999, p. 7).

In the same way that the community gardening movement has successfully contributed to the building of stronger communities, the community-based youth projects that I have focused on, are similarly equipped to bring about these connections. By involving youth in community renewal efforts, by giving them the means with which to contribute to local food security initiatives, and by encouraging them to foster the creation of a community within the project of creating and maintaining garden and farm beds, these types of initiatives are able to foster the connections that Miller speaks of.

Individuals and the earth

In her paper that links Miller's transformative approach to the environmental education movement, Connie Russell (1997, p.37) points out that Miller's attention to the need for connections between individuals and the earth is "unusual amongst general curriculum theorists". Russell (p.37) goes on to argue for the need for educators that "feel a deep connection with and reverence for all life, understand nature as Home, and teach and learn from a position where all life is seen to be interconnected and interdependent". Russell believes that this is unusual amongst environmental educators, and that the majority work from a position that fits more closely within the transmission approach. From this perspective, emphasis is on teaching "stewardship"; "humankind is still considered separate from and superior to nature and must remain in absolute control" (Russell, 1997, p.36).

From a sustainable agriculture and horticulture perspective, teaching about connections to the earth could easily fall within a transmission approach. "Stewardship" is a popular term within these circles, and teaching from the perspective of "protecting the land for future generations" reinforces the perspective of nature as object. From a transformative perspective, gardens and farms take on a much deeper meaning. Instead of being viewed as sites of production, they are understood as places of meaning; interdependence and the interconnections of all life is emphasized. While a commitment to organic principles and practices is one step towards this realization, other efforts must be made to emphasize that food production sites are much more than a resource. At the Food Project, they use an exercise called "Nature Sit" (Gale, 2001, p.166) to help foster these relationships. In this exercise, individual youths find a quiet place on the farm and spend 45 minutes reflecting on the spot. Given a set of questions as a guide, they are encouraged to pay attention to the scents, sounds, and tastes around them. They are asked to think about animals that may have spent time at that spot, and how it may have looked 100 years earlier. A group discussion at the end of the exercise encourages participants to talk about how they felt during this exercise. In contrast to the weekly agricultural workshops that teach the basic principles of organic farming, this type of workshop reminds participants that the land is much more than a field for growing food.

Participation in sustainable gardening and farming does not necessarily reflect a transformative perspective. However, they do offer a unique setting and interesting opportunities for creating exercises that encourage the creation of meaningful relationships with the earth. Greg Gale of the Food Project told me that, at a recent DIRT crew retreat, one of the youth was talking "about how she now looks around differently at thingsÉshe realizes that she wants to look up at the sky and look for stars, or look at the trees around her". Working at farms and gardens can be inspiring. They remind us of the natural world that is always around us.

self and Self

Ultimately, forging the types of relationships described in these different areas, requires an understanding of ourselves. In the Food Project book Growing Together, Greg Gale talks about learning "from the inside out"; the work undertaken by organizations such as the Food Project allow participants to learn about themselves through their involvement in hard, meaningful work, in a caring environment.

Advocates of service work write about how young people's involvement in community projects affects their understanding of their inner-selves (Kinsley and McPherson, 1995, Devitis et al., 1998). This type of work may present individual challenges as participants are exposed to unfamiliar territory, new ideas and people. Of course, not all of the community-based youth farm and garden programs necessarily incorporate a service aspect. However, projects that promote community greening (through the establishment of gardens), contribute to community food security (through the vending or distribution of vegetables to the neighbourhood), or provide youth with an opportunity to explore micro-enterprise projects can also result in the creation of an self- reflective environment. Through these experiences, youth learn about themselves, their abilities, skills, values and beliefs.

Of course gardening and farming are not the only means to make these connections. In his book on youth development projects throughout the United States, Richard Lakes (1996) highlights a number of programs using a wide range of tools through which they create similar learning environments. Along with dance, art, micro-enterprises and other projects, food production sites deserve greater recognition for its potential as transformative education venues. Through their ability to address food security issues, they can awakens participants to socio-economic issues. Through their ability to beautify urban spaces, they can remind participants of the potential that lies not only within neighbourhoods, but within ourselves. Finally, because of the universality of food, they connect us with our neighbours.

The need for Transformative Principles

While I hope this discussion has shown how agricultural and horticultural activities can be used within a transformational approach to education, I want to be equally clear that these sites do not necessarily guarantee that this type of approach is being undertaken. As within any classroom, project, or workshop, certain principles need to be in place to guarantee this model is being enacted.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the transformational approach, is the beliefs and efforts of the teachers, facilitators and/or adult supervisors within these structures. As bell hooks (1994, p.21) has claimed:

When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks.

While content is a significant aspect of Transformative education, process is equally important. Democratic principles need to be in place, staff need to recognize, and work to dismantle social orders and patterns. Bell hooks (1994) talks about the difference between a teacher speaking to her class from behind a podium, as compared to one who walks around, is in contact with her students. She believes this is one way to begin the process of creating a transformative educational space. If this is the case, I wonder what the significance is of a teacher or facilitator working next to their youth participants in the fields? Perhaps this aspect of these types of programs helps with the establishment of a different kind of educational arena. In any case however, it is important to note that, without a conscientious effort to create this type of learning environment, farms and gardens will not provide the type of educational opportunity of which Miller speaks.

Future Directions for Research:

Urban and Suburban: Interpreting Experience

During my research and writing of this paper, a number of related questions came up that have not been addressed within this body of work. Limited by time and space, I was unable to look at many important issues. Of particular interest, is how and whether urban and suburban youth experience these types of programs differently. The youth at the Food Project are made up young people from a wide range of economic, racial, and geographical backgrounds. Within the interviews, both urban and suburban youth identified similar aspects of the program that they felt were important. In particular, the two themes that came up most often, were related to their appreciation of their involvement in what they felt was "meaningful work", as well as their exposure to working with kids from different backgrounds.

While these similarities were clear, there were a couple of interesting points that came up which differentiated the urban and suburban youth. Firstly, while in the case of the urban youth, the main motivating factor for their initial involvement with the project was to secure employment, with two of the three suburban youth, they described their interest in the program goals and structure itself. All of the suburban youth had volunteered on at least one of the Food Project sites prior to their employment with the organisation. Secondly, with all of the urban youth, I noticed references to the size of the Lincoln fields. Their initial reaction to the space was described in terms quite different from those used by the suburban youth. While I did not pursue this line of questioning, it does raise the question of how the youths' experiences of the land and farming vary, and whether their upbringings, familiarity with different landscapes, and other factors do or do not effect their responses to the land. This is of particular interest where we talk about "people-plant relationships".

Leading theorists in this field such as horticulturalist Charles Lewis have written about how responses to plants and gardens are affected by cultural and socio-economic backgrounds (Lewis, 1996), however, there is still a great deal of research to be done in this area. For instance, the comments made by Lewis (1996, p.110) that I referred to earlier within the conclusion, in which he spoke of the role of plants in developing "a deeper self understanding"; is this process universal? In a 1994 article detailing the creation of and research directions undertaken by the people-plant council, Diane Relf and Pete Madsen (1994) outline a number of different areas of research, but make no reference to the acknowledgement of how cultural backgrounds might impact experience. They compare horticulture to the growing awareness of the benefits of exercise- an activity beneficial to all. Why this may very well be true, it is my sense that there is a need for research that examines more thoroughly the differences between experiences, and the reasons and implications of these differences. To speak of "people-plant relationships" in a way that emphasizes only the universality of these experiences, and not the differences, is far too oversimplistic. Research into areas such as people-plant relationships is difficult, due to the subjective nature of these experiences. While researchers in this field employ a variety of qualitative and quantitative data collection methods, "proving" the benefits of contact with plants is difficult. To go further and look at the different benefits and how these are related to class, race and economic backgrounds, is an extensive undertaking, but one that I believe would be beneficial. Much of our understanding of these relationships is based on intuition and faith, and we need to continue to push ourselves to devise ways to gather information and measure these effects in a way that is sensitive to the complexities of these relationships.

Canada and the U.S:

As a Canadian, who lives (mostly) in Toronto, but has worked in Masachusetts with the Food Project, and has spent time studying organic agriculture at the University of California in Santa Cruz, I have had the opportunity to familiarize myself to some extent with community-based food projects in both Canada and the United States. While within both countries there are examples of well-designed and creative initiatives, the U.S movement is clearly larger and more comprehensive in terms of the breadth and number of different programs that exist. Sean Cosgrove (1998) of the Toronto Food Policy Council has written about these differences within the community gardening movement, and argues that the United States has a fuller history due to the "greater challenges of disinvestment, urban decay, and poorly planned urban renewal schemes" (Cosgrove in Warman, 1999, p. 5). In terms of youth projects that focus on agriculture, Canada falls far behind the United States in terms of numbers and diversity of programs. Probably the best known programs are run by Foodshare in Toronto, Ontario, and Lifecycles, in Victoria, B.C. These programs focus on older youth, in their late teens and twenties. My research turned up very little in terms of programming for teenagers in Canada.

Differences between these two countries, both in terms of community agriculture projects in general, and youth programs in particular, is another area of inquiry that requires greater research. Differences other than those mentioned by Cosgrove may be attributed to the lack of available land in Canadian cities. While parkland is a possible source, any visitor to major Canadian and American cities could observe that Canada has not experienced the same urban migration out of city cores that results in vacant lots and transformable space. As well, it seems that governmental support for these types of projects may be greater in the United States. The establishment of the community food projects grant program by the USDA, for instance (referred to in Chapter 2), is demonstrative of the recognition within the department of the importance of urban agriculture. Such grants in Canada simply do not exist.

Finally, in terms of general youth programming, while I have not researched the differences between these two countries, my observations are that programs for teenagers are far more extensive in the United States. While I would have liked to spend time looking into these issues in greater detail, there was not space within the body of this paper to do so. I hope that further studies into these issues will occur, and that the Canadian community agriculture and gardening movement will continue to flourish. Filled as it is with a talented and dedicated body of gardeners and farmers, community workers and policy analysts, my sense is that we will continue to see the creation of types of programs that currently exist in the United States.

Finally, I would also hope to see further research within the holistic education field into the benefits of using agriculture and gardening within their educational programs. Writers such as Miller (2001) have written about the need for "earth education", and there is an alliance between educators within this field and environmental educators such as David Orr who have written about the benefits of including agriculture within curriculums (1996). Miller however, focuses in a large part on the use of the arts as a means of making the connections that are part of a transformative approach to education (1996). This paper has shown however, that agricultural and horticultural projects such as the Food Project exemplify many of the objectives that holistic educators speak of, and their attention to the work of these types of organisations would further their movement, and lend greater support to their arguments. As well, while I feel that the focus on school reform within the holistic education field is extremely important, and recognize that these types of programs are only available to a fraction of the youth that attend schools, I would hope that holistic educational theorists pay greater attention to the work being done at these alternative sites.

John Miller (1996) concludes his book, The Holistic Curriculum, by describing his vision of the holistic school as a "complex living organism that is evolving- changing through a sense of purpose, collaboration, and a deep sense of inner direction" (p.182). Miller outlines a number of features that would be included in this school. I would like to conclude this paper by describing how we might use gardens and farms to create similar learning environments for young people.

Gardens and farms have long been recognised as valuable spaces for human culture. Beyond their practical necessity and aesthetic value, the growing of food, flowers and other plants has been linked to the creation of physically and physiologically healthy individuals, the creation of stronger and happier communities, as well as an important educational tool. The ways that gardening and farming have been used within the field of education has varied greatly over time, and continues to be used in a number of fashions. The development of the farm school movement, the 4-H club, as well as the growth of the community gardening movement have contributed to the creation of organisations like the Food Project that are providing important programs for young people. Through the production and distribution of organic fruit and vegetables, through the creation of caring and democratic learning and working communities built around farms and gardens, young people are offered an opportunity to involve themselves in their community, to learn about themselves and to reshape their world. Through gardening and farming, the connections that Miller (1996) refers to are addressed in a manner that seems to work for many. Through gardening and farming the possibilities for exploring the transformative approach to education of which Miller speaks, seem endless.

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Revised Dec 13, 2010

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture