Former Juvenile Inmates Are Earning Double Minimum Wage to Grow Crops — and Business Skills

To many residents of the historically black neighborhoods on Atlanta’s westside, Abiodun Henderson is both local savior and master storyteller. Better known as Miss Abbey, Atlantans drizzle her original hot sauce recipe — which she developed after watching YouTube videos — on their food, and they lean in close when she tells stories of her family’s roots in Liberia and Trinidad.
And when there’s a problem, they go to her. The 36-year-old mother heard about local farmers’ struggles to find enough farmhands to work their land. At the same time, Henderson watched as hordes of young people in her community came home from prison or jail, and went right back in after struggling to find a job with a stable, livable wage.
A lightbulb went off and Henderson, who previously oversaw a community garden in Atlanta’s Westview neighborhood, combined her knowledge of urban farming with a passion for increasing economic opportunities for disadvantaged youth. The result became Gangstas to Growers, an agribusiness training program for formerly incarcerated youth between the ages of 18 and 24. 
Launched in 2016, the three-month program equips participants not just with farming and gardening know-how, but also the ins and outs of running a business. There’s a heavy focus on personal development, too, and on any given day the young adults might hear from experts on topics such as financial literacy, environmental sustainability, nutritional cooking, and criminal justice. In between morning yoga sessions and evening seminars, the trainees spend their afternoons at black-owned farms, digging, planting and harvesting crops for which they’re paid $15 an hour — more than twice Georgia’s minimum wage.  
“We take care of the folks in these neighborhoods and change how these young people in these neighborhoods act,” Henderson told NationSwell, “and get them to be examples for the younger people coming up.”
Across the country, a black American is five times more likely to be jailed by the time they turn 21 compared to their white counterparts. And in Georgia, black residents make up nearly two-thirds of the prison population, compared to only 30% of the state’s population. Recidivism is a problem throughout Atlanta — where the youth recidivism rate is 65%. One of the main reasons people end up back in jail is a lack of employment
To date, Henderson and Gangstas to Growers have worked with 15 young adults. When they finish the program, she helps connect them to jobs and fellowships in the food and agriculture industries. While several graduates have indeed gone on to work in the food industry, others have applied their new skills to other fields, like construction. 
Henderson stressed that hers is a grassroots movement, not a nonprofit or a charity. All her work designing the Gangsta program and recruiting young people to apply for it starts from the ground up. 
But that attitude has also put her work at risk. “I never thought of funding first,” she said. “I thought of programming first.” She received a $10,000 emergency grant from a local nonprofit in 2016, but that was quickly spent. To help ease the financial burden, her team began making, bottling and marketing Henderson’s hot sauce recipe, which the trainees named Sweet Sol. A fiery concoction of habanero and cayenne peppers along with ingredients like lavender, turmeric and muscovado sugar, Sweet Sol is sold for $10 a bottle at Atlanta farmers markets and for $12 online
Though the city pays the $15 hourly wages through its workforce development program, there are still bills to pay. Last year Gangstas to Growers participants had to rely on Uber to get out to the farms, so a van is high on the wishlist. And with the lofty goal of training another 500 young Atlantans by 2025, Henderson needs all the support she can get.
Henderson has activism in her blood. Raised in Brooklyn by her immigrant mother and a father who, as she has described, was a “rank-and-file Black Panther member,” she started the long journey to Gangstas and Growers when she was connected to Occupy the Hood, an extension of the Occupy movement of 2011 that sought to expose the hold major banks and corporations have on the democratic process. 
Through Occupy the Hood, which in part focused on increasing access to nutritional food in low-income minority communities, Henderson was provided with the resources and connections to put those ideals in action in her own neighborhood. After getting approval from local leaders in 2012 to run operations at the newly hatched community garden in Westview, she started a summer camp for area kids and taught them how to grow produce. Then came the idea for Gangstas to Growers a few years later. “We see this work as really shifting neighborhoods.” Henderson said.
For Raekwon Smith, the program helped him shift his attitude and embrace a straighter path. After finishing his stint at Gangstas to Growers, he earned a fellowship with a youth development program. Now he’s working in construction. 
And for Derriontae Trent, the lessons he learned from farming went deeper than harvesting the fruits and vegetables he planted.
“I was so used to seeing death that I didn’t know how it’d feel to see something grow,” Trent told Politico. “To see plants grow full of life, from something I control, it’s probably the best feeling in the world.”
Trent also learned about political justice and systematic oppression. He’s now working with other organizations in Atlanta to raise Georgia’s minimum wage and fighting gentrification in his neighborhood. “He is young and ready,” Henderson said.
But as she also pointed out, “You never really leave. It’s a life program.” Trent can still be found cooking hot sauce in the industrial kitchen on the weekends, and Smith still sells bottles of Sweet Sol at local farmers markets. 
“They’ve become organizers and come up with solutions for their own neighborhoods,” Henderson said of Smith and Trent.
“We have to share our privilege and empower these young black folks,” Henderson said. “And saturate the local food movement — and every movement — with the hood.”
More: To Build a Healthier City, Atlanta Is Opening Its Schoolyards to Everyone 

Fighting Food Waste, One Sector at a Time

America is one of the largest offenders of food waste in the world, according to a recent survey. Every year, roughly 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown out worldwide, a considerable problem given that agriculture contributes about 22 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and 12.7 million people go hungry in America alone. Entrepreneurs across several sectors have created ways to repurpose food. Their efforts are admirable and economical, but the biggest difference will be if you make food waste reduction a daily habit.

Recovered food from the University of Denver Food Recovery Network chapter.

On College Campuses

On average, a student who lives in university housing throws out 141 pounds of food per year. Multiply that by the number of residential colleges around the country, and it becomes a huge problem, says Regina Northouse, executive director for the Food Recovery Network, the only nonprofit dealing specifically with campus food waste.
WATCH: How Much Food Could Be Rescued If College Dining Halls Saved Their Leftovers?
Northouse’s group reduces waste by enlisting the help of student volunteers at 226 universities. This manpower shuttles still-edible food from dining halls that would otherwise be thrown out to local nonprofits fighting hunger. Northouse estimates that since 2011, Food Recovery Network has fed 150,000 food-insecure people.

Through the box-subscription company Hungry Harvest, farmers sell “ugly food” to consumers instead of tossing the unsightly produce out.

On Farms

If a carrot isn’t quite orange enough, odds are it’ll be tossed. Blemishes and unattractive produce make up nearly 40 percent of discarded food, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Though some unused fruits and veggies can be sent to food manufacturers, farmers lose profits from about a quarter of their crops because of cosmetic imperfections. To put money back into their pockets, box subscriptions services, such as Hungry Harvest, have found their way into the ugly food market.
“We started out with 10 customers at a stand,” says Stacy Carroll, director of partnerships for Hungry Harvest. “We now have thousands of customers every week buying thousands of pounds of food that would, in the past, have been thrown away.”
Roughly 10,000 subscribers along the East Coast receive weekly boxes of recovered produce from the Baltimore-based company (which was started by the founders of Food Recovery Network). In addition, food insecure families who use SNAP benefits can purchase boxes at 10 Hungry Harvest sites. All in all, the organization redistributes between 60,000 and 80,000 pounds of food through its subscription service each week.

MealConnect provides a platform for retailers to redistribute unsold produce to those in need.

At Food Retailers

For merchants, food wasted is also money wasted. Across the U.S., the cost of tossing food runs upward of $165 billion annually.
MealConnect, a tech platform launched in April by Feeding America (a nationwide network of food banks), allows retailers to post surplus meals and unused produce on its app, which then notifies local food banks workers to pick it up and redistribute it to those in need. The company has recovered 333 million pounds of food by working with large retailers like Walmart and Starbucks. MealConnect also allows merchants to recoup some of their outlays (via tax deductions).

Chef Dan Barber’s wastED pop-ups challenged chefs to create innovate dishes using produce that otherwise would have been thrown out.

In Restaurants

In 2015, the aptly named food popup wastED found itself in the heart of a media frenzy because of what was on the menu: trashed food. 
Since then, a handful of other restaurants in urban areas across the world have used recovered produce in their meals.
“We’re offering our cooks the opportunity to be creative and come up with menus instead,” says Brooklyn, N.Y., chef Przemek Adolf, owner of Saucy By Nature, which uses leftovers from previous catering events to create daily lunch and dinner specials.

The USDA’s FoodKeeper app educates consumers on how to extend the shelf life of stored foods.

In Your Own Kitchen

Individual families throw away nearly $1,600 worth of food per year, according to the EPA, which has spurred the federal government to step in and help.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the app FoodKeeper, which informs consumers on how long an apple can last in the fridge, for example, and proper food storage techniques to extend shelf life. It also sends out reminder alerts to use up food that’s in danger of spoiling. The desired outcome? People changing their behaviors, ultimately buying less and consuming what they do purchase.

10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016

The most contentious presidential election in modern history offered Americans abundant reasons to shut off the news. But if they looked past the front page’s daily jaw-droppers, our countrymen would see that there’s plenty of inspiring work being done. At NationSwell, we strive to find the nonprofit directors, the social entrepreneurs and the government officials testing new ways to solve America’s most intractable problems. In our reporting this year, we’ve found there’s no shortage of good being done. Here’s a look at our favorite solutions from 2016.

This Woman Has Collected 40,000 Feminine Products to Boost the Self-Esteem of Homeless Women
Already struggling to afford basic necessities, homeless women often forgo bras and menstrual hygiene products. Dana Marlowe, a mother of two in the Washington, D.C., area, restored these ladies’ dignity by distributing over 40,000 feminine products to the homeless before NationSwell met her in February. Since then, her organization Support the Girls has given out 212,000 more.
Why Sleeping in a Former Slave’s Home Will Make You Rethink Race Relations in America
Joseph McGill, a Civil War re-enactor and history consultant for Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina, believes we must not forget the history of slavery and its lasting impact to date. To remind us, he’s slept overnight in 80 dilapidated cabins — sometimes bringing along groups of people interested in the experience — that once held the enslaved.

This Is How You End the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline
Abandoned by an abusive dad and a mentally ill mom, Pamela Bolnick was placed into foster care at 6 years old. For a time, the system worked — that is, until she “aged out” of it. Bolnick sought help from First Place for Youth, an East Bay nonprofit that provides security deposits for emancipated children to transition into stable housing.

Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change if One Cooked and Served You Dinner?
Café Momentum, one of Dallas’s most popular restaurants, is staffed by formerly incarcerated young men without prior culinary experience. Owner Chad Houser says the kitchen jobs have almost entirely eliminated recidivism among his restaurant’s ranks.

This Proven Method Is How You Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Nearly three decades before Rolling Stone published its incendiary (and factually inaccurate) description of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, a gang rape occurred at the University of New Hampshire in 1987. Choosing the right ways to respond to the crisis, the public college has since become the undisputed leader in ending sex crimes on campus.

This Sustainable ‘Farm of the Future’ Is Changing How Food Is Grown
Once a commercial fisherman, Bren Smith now employs a more sustainable way to draw food from the ocean. Underwater, near Thimble Island, Conn., he’s grown a vertical farm, layered with kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters.

This Former Inmate Fights for Others’ Freedom from Life Sentences
Jason Hernandez was never supposed to leave prison. At age 21, a federal judge sentenced him to life for selling crack cocaine in McKinney, Texas — Hernandez’s first criminal offense. After President Obama granted him clemency in 2013, he’s advocated on behalf of those still behind bars for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses.

Eliminating Food Waste, One Sandwich (and App) at a Time
In 2012, Raj Karmani, a Pakistani immigrant studying computer science at the University of Illinois, built an app to redistribute leftover food to local nonprofits. So far, the nonprofit Zero Percent has delivered 1 million meals from restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets to Chicago’s needy. In recognition of his work, Karmani was awarded a $10,000 grant as part of NationSwell’s and Comcast NBCUniversal’s AllStars program.

Baltimore Explores a Bold Solution to Fight Heroin Addiction
Last year, someone in Baltimore died from an overdose every day: 393 in total, more than the number killed by guns. Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s tireless public health commissioner, issued a blanket prescription for naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, to every citizen — the first step in her ambitious plan to wean 20,000 residents off heroin.

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project
Up until 1974, a streetcar made daily trips from El Paso, Texas, across the Mexican border to Ciudad Juárez. Recently, a public art project depicting fake ads for the trolley inspired locals to call for the line’s comeback, and the artist behind the poster campaign now sits on the city council.

Continue reading “10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016”

A Problematic Industry Joins the Climate Change Movement, Much-Needed Health Care Reaches the Latino Community and More

U.S. Agricultural Secretary Thinks Farmers Can Help Solve Global Warming, Scientific American
Those that work the land inflict some of the worst harm on it. But as a recent report reveals, members of the agriculture community — farmers, ranchers, foresters — are beginning to change their planet-damaging ways. As they reform what they grow and how they grow it means that farmers soon could cease being one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution.
Students Fill a Gap in Mental Health Care for Immigrants, NPR
For immigrants in need of mental health care, a lack of documentation or insurance often means illnesses remain untreated. Across the nation, understaffed health clinics and universities are joining forces to improve access to services for depression, anxiety and more. Through these partnerships, Master’s and Ph.D. students play a vital role in treating mental illness in the Latino community.
Vermont Becomes First State to Require Drug Makers to Justify Price Hikes, STAT News
Last year, the pharmaceutical industry got a bad rap when Martin Shkreli hiked up the price of an HIV drug by more than 5,000 percent. In response, the Green Mountain state passed a law holding drug companies accountable for price increases. Could this move stunt medical innovation or will it protect citizens from unreasonable costs?

With the Number of Farmers in the U.S. Dropping, This Program is Helping Refugees Take Their Place

More important that putting gasoline in our cars, we need food to survive, and our farmers are the ones who keep us fed. A single U.S. farmer produces enough food to feed 155 people.
Worryingly, the population of American farmers is only getting older. According to the last census, the average age was 58.3 years and a third of farmers were older than 65 in 2012, the Associated Press writes.
Even though there’s been a small uptick of younger farmers between the ages of 25 and 34 (due to government support and increased interest in locally-grown foods) there’s still a big void that will need to get filled.
Thankfully, our newest Americans could play a big part in the country’s agricultural future.
MORE: Ask the Experts: Why Should Americans Care About Employing Immigrants?

In central Maine, the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) is presenting immigrant families with an opportunity to break into farming and help feed the country. Not only does the program also give them a chance to escape poverty and debt, but it also provides a shot at a college education, the Christian Science Monitor reports.
A large number participating in NASAP are refugees from civil war-torn Somalia, South Sudan, and the Congo. (Modern Farmer reports that Maine is home to roughly 5,000 Somalis.)
According to their website, NASAP provides training, on-farm workshops and one-on-one consultation to recently resettled refugee and immigrant farmers living in the greater Lewiston and Portland areas.
By working in NASAP and selling their crops to restaurants, farmers markets and grocers, an enrollee can bring in about $2,000 to $4,000 a year in supplemental income and up to $20,000 yearly, the Christian Science Monitor states.
“We’re so proud to be here,” Somali participants said via translator to Modern Farmer. “We couldn’t have this opportunity without your support, and we appreciate it.”
DON’T MISS: Thousands More Angelenos Can Now Enjoy Farmer’s Market Produce

When the Shovels and Pitchforks Weren’t Quite Right, These Savvy Female Farmers Designed New Versions

Ladies, does using your shovel leave you with an aching back and quivering biceps?
No, you’re not weak, as some might claim. Instead, the problem is probably that not all garden and farm tools are created equal and just about all of them are created by — and for — men.
If you’re tired of this inequality, you’re not alone.
That’s where Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger come in. Twenty-year veteran farmers, they started their company, Green Heron Tools, back in 2008 after talking to several of their female farming counterparts. Adams says“At the farmers markets, we got together with other women producers or couples farming, and the topic of tools constantly came up.”
“Some of the tools didn’t work because they were designed for men,” Adams explained to Modern Farmer. “We saw a need for a place where women could go for tools that work for their bodies.”
Using a USDA grant, Adams and Brensinger took this idea to occupational therapy and engineering experts to help design their line of tools (which aren’t pink, by the way), which includes a wide variety of equipment useful for anything from simple gardening to serious farming. Their HERS shovel, for example, has a handle designed for smaller hands, and the tweaked design — including an enlarged blade with tread — helps women take advantage of their lower body muscles.
While not all items sold through Green Heron Tools are designed by the company, all have been tested and recommended by women.
According to Grist, the number of women in agriculture is on the rise, so there’s a growing market for female friendly farm tools. And thanks to some smart thinking, now there are implements just for them.
MORE: This Woman Fought The Tough Chicago Streets and Won

Can This Ancient Farming Method Help Drought-Ridden California?

California is in its third year of a historic drought — and every Californian is feeling the pinch. Lawmakers recently approved a $500 fine for residents who waste water on lawns, but it’s the state’s farmers who are experiencing the most pain.
Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use, and with wells drying up, the results have been environmentally and financially devastating — costing billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. And when half of our nation’s food comes from the Golden State, this is an issue all Americans should be concerned about.
There are already several interesting solutions to counter the catastrophic drought, and in the midst of all that talk, an old-fashioned farming method has also been brought to the table, especially since it requires no irrigation at all. It’s called “dry farming.”
Modern Farmer touts this practice as “a refreshing answer” for farming in arid landscapes such as California that receive precipitation in small spurts. The process (which has been used historically in dry regions in the Mediterranean and the American west) involves sealing the top few inches of soil into a dry crust to prevent moisture from escaping after rainfall. Because crops are getting less water from above, their roots push lower into the ground, searching for moisture.
MORE: The Silver Lining to California’s Terrible Drought
A few Californian vineyards and farms already use dry farming on fruits and vegetables such as grapes, tomatoes, apples, grapes, melons and potatoes. NPR reported that a “garden that goes unwatered for months may produce sweeter, more flavorful fruits than anything available in most mainstream supermarkets.” These crops, since they are so niche and tasty, indeed go for a premium.
Dry farming, however, might not work large-scale since it results in a much lower yield (Slate found that dry-farmed apples averaged 12 to 14 tons per acre versus the 20 to 40 tons per acre on irrigated apple farms) there are some additional benefits. Modern Farmer reports that since dry farms do not use any irrigation methods, it saves on the infrastructure and the maintenance of of wells, pumps, tanks and piping.
But since the drought could cost California’s Central Valley (the state’s farming hub) $810 million in lost crop revenue, dry farming is an alternative that might be worth every penny.
DON’T MISS: The Eco-Friendly Plan to Quench Central California’s Thirst

Thousands More Angelenos Can Now Enjoy Farmer’s Market Produce

While this sounds downright strange, the sale of cigarettes is giving some California residents access to healthy fruits and vegetables.
Thanks to a new $2.5 million grant from First 5 L.A. (a nonprofit funded through California taxes on tobacco products), thousands of low-income families in Los Angeles are going to be crunching into healthy farmer’s market goods.
The sizable grant was given to Market Match, a program that provides a dollar-for-dollar match at farmer’s markets to shoppers receiving economic assistance through EBT (Electronics Benefits Transfer, which is more widely know as food stamps) or WIC (the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children).
According to the Los Angeles Times, the new funds could triple the impact of Market Match over the next several years. James Haydu, the executive director of Sustainable Economic Enterprises-Los Angeles, told David Karp of the Times, “It will not only expand the countywide program, but through the next five years it will make it far easier to be able to quickly explain how the system works to ensure that as many people as possible can take advantage of it.”
In 2010, Market Match started with only $3,000 of funding, serving just two farmer’s markets. With such a tiny amount of money available, the dollar-for-dollar matches quickly ran out. But with a projected $80,000 available to fund next year’s program, many more families will be able to enjoy the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. Market Match is now available at 14 L.A. farmer’s markets, and organizers hope to expand it to 37 markets during the grant-funded period.
Martin Bourque, the director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, that manages the Market Match program, said that the funds will not only benefit low-income people in Los Angeles, but also enhance the health of California’s rural lands and its economy. Their survey of farmers at the markets indicated that 80 percent of them sold more produce as a result of the program.
“It’s important to remember that in addition to serving low-income shoppers, every dollar they spend is going to one of California’s small family farmers,” Bourque said. “So every dollar is doing double-duty — not only helping poor people in Los Angeles, but reaching out and helping some of California’s most economically devastated rural communities as well.”
Who knew the simple purchase of some locally-grown strawberries had the power to accomplish all that?
MORE: How 40 Pounds of Leftover Broccoli Sparked A Farm-Friendly Innovation

How the Small Farmer Feeds the Majority of the World

One hundred years ago, the U.S. farm was drastically different than it is today. In 1900, the average farm was just 147 acres in size. Nowadays, it’s grown to be more than three times that size — 441 acres, to be exact, according to the Ag Council of America. So needless to say, the way a farmer goes about planting and gathering his crops from the fields is quite different in this age of industrialized agriculture than it was when the pioneers originally settled the Great Plains and turned it into the breadbasket of America.

But despite living in this age of factory farming, it’s still the small farmer that feeds the majority of our stomachs. This new video from Food Tank (a think tank) entitled Family Farmers + You = A Well Nourished World, reveals that family farmers are responsible for producing more than half (57 percent, to be exact) of the world’s food.
Not only do these growers put fresh, sustainable food on our plates, but small farmers also help boost local economies and give men and women financial security. Plus, they play a major part in protecting the planet as they are on the front lines of environmental disasters — such as floods, water scarcity, and extreme weather.
As a result, the United Nations designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming to highlight how small farmers play a major role in making the world a better place. As the planet becomes more urbanized and modernized, it’s clear that we can’t allow the family farm to become extinct.
Check out this video and learn how you can be a part of the solution.

Can Spending Millions of Dollars on Flowers Help Save the Honeybee?

You’ve probably seen the headlines touting the demise of the honeybee. But if you love smothering an English muffin with honey each and every morning, don’t fret that you’re going to have to kiss that sweet, sticky goo goodbye.
That’s because Uncle Sam is about to spend millions on delicious, nectar-producing flowers to help save the dwindling honeybee population. The USDA recently announced that farmers in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin will share about $3 million in federal money to reseed their pastures with plants such as alfalfa, clover, and other flowering crops that attract both bees and livestock, the Associated Press reports. Farmers can also use the funds to improve their facilities such as building fences to make sure farm animals don’t wear out the vegetation on their pastures.
Honeybees pollinate approximately $15 billion worth of produce in the country each year, or about a quarter of the food we consume. But to the horror of beekeepers and farmers from coast to coast, honeybees have been disappearing in startling rates.
MORE: Meet the Scientists Who Are Tackling Our Disappearing Bee Problem
But with this money, farmers can grow nutritious bee-friendly plants alongside their commodity crops such as soybeans, cotton and corn which aren’t as appetizing to bees and can contain toxic pesticides—a suggested culprit of Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been plaguing the honeybee population. As the USDA’s David Epstein told the AP, “You can think of it in terms of yourself. If you are studying for exams in college, and you’re not eating properly and you’re existing on coffee, then you make yourself more susceptible to disease and you get sick.”
Basically, the USDA is giving farmers money so they can plant a healthier variety of foods for honeybees to pollinate. “It’s a win for the livestock guys, and it’s a win for the managed honeybee population,” Jason Weller, chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, told AP. “And it’s a win then for orchardists and other specialty crop producers across the nation because then you’re going to have a healthier, more robust bee population that then goes out and helps pollinate important crops.”
Could there finally be hope for the honeybees?