VERONA – The smell of freshly picked garlic hangs in the air. There is a giant pile that is being sorted on the farm for Project Grows in Verona.

Various workers, volunteers and trainees enter and leave the farm. Harvest different produce for future pickups, tend and weed the rows of vegetables and water.

There’s a small group of teens gathered under an overhang to discuss a new mentoring and internship program focused on high school students from the area coming to work on the farm.

Project Grows is a non-profit educational organization that promotes the health of children and youth in Staunton, Augusta County and Waynesboro through garden-based education and access to healthy food. The organization started in 2010 and the farm became a reality in 2012.

The association’s 10-acre farm, with four acres dedicated to cultivation, is located outside of Verona on Berry Road. Schools in the area can take trips to harvest vegetables or plant. Project Grows also visits various schools and children’s organizations in the Staunton, Augusta County and Waynesboro areas where they prepare meals for serving.

When COVID-19 hit, they were trying to find ways to still make an impact with local school children.

This is where youth leadership in agriculture was born. In the summer of 2020, Tom Brenneman, Director of Project Grows, and Nichole Barrows, Director of Education, along with Project Grows staff, came up with an idea of ​​partnering with school guidance counselors, teachers and the Staunton City schools teaching staff.

“During the pandemic, we wanted to accommodate smaller groups of students,” Barrows said.

Typically, the farm accommodates around 1,000 students per year with field trips. In 2020, that was not the case.

Barrows said the program aims to provide a type of student mentoring program, one that will prioritize high school students from low-income communities and communities of color. These students will learn about agriculture, leadership skills and entrepreneurship.

“The idea is to really focus on opportunities for people like young people of color… people who are not traditionally connected to the land… and to really focus on young women and adolescents” , said Brenneman. “The reality is that when we look at the social determinants of health, our underlying mission, most of those realities are born out of income and class. Unhealthy calories are much more affordable for us than healthy calories. . And sometimes they are more accessible. “

Members of Project Grows Youth Leadership in Agriculture.  Front Row: Patricia Ward (Youth Leader), Kyra Hitchcock (Youth Leader), Price Crenshaw (Farmer), Melissa Redd (Social Work Intern and Summer Youth Staff Supervisor), Nichole Barrows (Director of Education ), Rosie Clark (youth leader).  Back Row: Colby Strange (Youth Leader), Garrett Profeta (Youth Leader), Tom Brenneman (Executive Director).

The program begins with high school students, who will begin with 140-hour academic mentoring for course credit on Project Grows. After that, they will be eligible to apply for a 280 hour paid internship for course credit during the summer growing season and fall semester of their final year.

Students will participate in agricultural and leadership development workshops, participate in permaculture and agroecology classes, participate in Kindergarten to Grade 12 food education for the youngest, and take field trips to the community to learn more about careers in our local food system, grant submission.

What started out as a small business has now grown into large-scale production.

In 2020, the nonprofit donated 498 pounds of hakurei turnips, radishes and spinach to schools in Staunton City for free curbside school lunch pickup, volunteered for more than 150 hours for the curbside meal distributions of Staunton City schools and served 4,950 samples of the month’s harvest vegetables at nine o’clock. schools across Staunton and Waynesboro, including Swiss chard, kale, winter squash and potatoes, according to its impact report.

Additionally, in 2020, Project Grows grew by over 15,000 pounds and 191,900 servings of on-farm produce, an increase of 19%. The association sold 1,100 pounds of produce to schools in Staunton and Waynesboro, an increase of 200%. They also provided food to 30 local families through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Project Grows also had its very first sales of fresh produce to the Boys & Girls Club, including 15 individual sales of peppers, carrots, snow peas and cucumbers. They also donated 2,100 pounds of produce to local hunger relief organizations and low-income seniors’ residences, an increase of 18%.

The farm has now grown into three high tunnels with produce, a greenhouse and a large production structure that will facilitate deliveries, office needs, classrooms and more. Fundraising for the new barn began three years ago. Construction is still in progress, but almost completed.

Now they are looking for more funding through Gannett’s A Community Thrives program. The last large grant the association received was in 2018 – a $ 250,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, which will bring nutritious food to low-income communities over the next three years.

They are to raise $ 20,000 as part of the fundraising campaign, which will fund the leadership program and primarily pay staff. Right now the program can handle six students, but they want to develop that.

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The 2021 A Community Thrives program is a $ 2.3 million initiative of the Gannett Foundation. The program is sponsored by Gannett, the parent company of the USA TODAY Network, and marks its fifth year of supporting groups that address social issues.

Since June 1, organizations have requested to raise funds for a specific project. They will first raise funds on their own through crowdfunding campaigns, and then they will be eligible for one of 15 national grants of up to $ 100,000. Separate incentives to reward high fundraising projects will be offered.

Projects will be eligible for hundreds of community operating grants starting at $ 2,500, chosen by leaders of Gannett’s USA TODAY network of more than 250 news sites in 46 states. Organizations that focus on building historically underfunded and underserved groups will be given special consideration.

To learn more about the fundraising campaign, visit acommunitythrives.mightycause.com/giving-events/act21/home.

There are three other organizations in Virginia that also run fundraising campaigns for grants:

Members of Project Grows's Youth Leadership in Agriculture work on the non-profit Verona farm.

Laura Peters is the current affairs reporter at The News Leader. Do you have any advice on trends or local businesses? Or a good feature? You can reach journalist Laura Peters (she) at [email protected]. Am here @peterslaura. Subscribe to The News Leader at newsleader.com.