This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Lacretia Jefferson shuffled the stack of colorful handmade cards on the table. Her long braids brushed the cards as she moved them back and forth across the wooden surface. The tip of one braid grazed a card shaded in purple crayon. Another fell upon a card with a cartoonish picture of an orange carrot. Jefferson arranged the cards into a vibrant tapestry across the small round table. All face-down, each card’s back read, “EAT YOUR COLORS” in large block letters. Five high school students sat around the edge of the table, their eyes focused intently on the cards. “Go!” exclaimed Jefferson. The five students stretched their arms across the table, clamoring for the cards and flipping them over vigorously. Jefferson, a junior at Parkway Center City High School, is a SOL (which stands for sustainable, organic, local) Food Youth Leader with Greener Partners, a nonprofit organization that works to increase local access to fresh food. She leads youth around the city through gardening and farming lessons. This winter at Girard College, she is walking students through nutrition and food-science lessons geared toward science, technology, engineering, and math, with a different theme each week. “I got it!” yelled a tall, slender boy to Jefferson’s left, dressed in a Girard College athletic sweatshirt. He handed her two cards, one with the drawing of a blueberry, and another with the words “purple” and “blue” across the front. “So, what do these mean?” asked Jefferson as she turned to her left for an answer. “Blue and purple foods strengthen our brain. They help prevent memory loss,” the boy replied. He was spot-on. This activity was just one component of the Girard College Garden Club’s extended-day itinerary. Before getting to the game table, students in the club learned what it means to “eat a rainbow,” hence the colorful game cards. “It’s important for us to eat foods of all different colors: red, orange, blue, green, white, yellow” said Jefferson, who planned the evening’s lesson. “Each food color group gives our bodies different nutrients.” Another activity, led by Jefferson’s colleague Mateneky Sanoe, required students to guess the vegetable pictured on a tag strung down their chests. Using clues supplied by their peers, the students named “tomato” and “beet” within seconds, while “Swiss chard” and “okra” weren’t as easily identified. The program is meant to increase students’ interest in science, and it also educates them about proper nutrition and gives them the skills to prepare healthy meals. At the end of the hour-and-a-half program, the club engaged in a Swiss chard pasta cooking lesson. A handful of eager students crowded around the sink to wash greens grown in the school garden, and another group of students put blades to cutting boards, chopping up green onions and Swiss chard. Harvey Finkle
The result was a dish for a dozen — spaghetti dressed in a creamy red garlic tomato sauce, with Swiss chard and kale mixed in. “I like planning out the lessons because it helps me think of the interesting ways to share the information,” said Jefferson, who spends her Monday evenings designing food-science lessons under the tutelage of Ari Rosenberg, manager of Greener Partners’ Guild House Farm. “Our youth leaders have full reign over the workshops,” said Rosenberg. “We want them to take ownership of the lessons and to take leadership to the next level with peer-to-peer mentoring.” Rosenberg steps in to guide the youth leaders through the learning process, especially with more challenging topics like lacto fermentation, which they will explore in two weeks. But the activities, recipes, and overall lesson delivery are all in the hands of the student mentors. “The biggest issue is that kids aren’t aware. They don’t know the difference between processed food and fresh food," Jefferson said. “I think young people talking and learning from other young people is the best way to get them to understand. I like showing other kids that if they can learn about something like a new vegetable, they can come to like it.” Before becoming a youth leader, Jefferson gained experience through long days last summer on the Guild House Farm, located at Guild House West, a home for seniors. She was an SOL Food intern through the Philadelphia Youth Network’s "work ready" program. Greener Partners and Philadelphia Youth Network are both part of the citywide Get HYPE Philly! initiative, which provided 50 health-related paid summer internships for high school students at non-profits last summer. “When I first started working with Greener Partners as an intern, it was difficult,” said Jefferson. “We couldn’t eat meat. Ms. Ari told us we could only eat what we grew and harvested on the farm.” At the farm, interns planted and harvested vegetables and learned important gardening methods such as weeding and cover cropping. They also led cooking demos and held luncheons for the seniors in the home. “I felt so welcomed when they would see us and call us grandbaby,” Jefferson said. Growing up in a Strawberry Mansion household with three older brothers and an older sister, Jefferson said she mostly stood around when her mother would cook. “I take home vegetables from the farm now and talk to my family about fresh food,” said Jefferson. "My mom has diabetes, so I try to help her out by making healthy shakes. I tell my nephews fun facts like Barack Obama’s favorite vegetable is arugula and that Michelle [Obama] likes sweet potato, to get them to try it.” And for her peers who shriek “eww” when asked to eat vegetables, Jefferson has some advice. “Hold your nose and eat it! I promise it tastes great. How are you willing to eat McDonald’s, but you won’t try this?” Time on the farm has given Jefferson some aspirations as well. She has recognized a short-term issue. “It’s not easy to get access to fresh food, but there are so many abandoned spaces across the city. We can turn open lots into gardens and give kids their own spots to grow food. We can keep the money in the community,” said Jefferson. And her long-term goals are are forward-looking and community-oriented, too. “After I study human biology in college, I want to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “I want to bring afterschool programming to Nigeria and Ghana, to teach kids about science. and then I want them to get into growing vegetables and gardening.” But for now Jefferson appreciates what she’s learning. “I found out that farming is something I can do to calm me down. I don’t worry a lot when I’m farming,” she said. “It’s my stress reliever.”