A program rooted in health and happiness
Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area’s youth horticulture program has flourished in this Minnesota community
What started as a “pizza garden” has grown into one of the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area’s signature programs—improving the wellbeing of youth through horticulture, healthy eating and entrepreneurship.
In 2005, participants in the northern Minnesota Club planted, tended and harvested their favorite pizza toppings in a single raised garden bed.
Along with the peppers, basil and onions, the concept sprouted and blossomed. Over 18 years, it has evolved into a full-scale gardening program with 20 raised beds, four hydroponic units, a 1,500 square-foot grow tunnel, 2,000 square feet of pavers, and an outdoor education center.
“Our kids love it, our families love it, and our community loves it,” says Shelby Weckwerth, the Club’s grant director, of the gardening program.
“We grow close to 50 different types of produce every year—purple carrots and purple peppers and all the different colors,” she explains. “Families express that a lot of our Club members start their own gardens at home because they’re inspired by what they do here.”
The programming doesn’t stop after cultivation. Once a week, for example, a local culinary chef and restaurateur teaches the kids to cook nutritious meals.
Participants can literally dine on the fruits of their labor in Bemidji Area School District cafeterias, which includes the youth-grown produce in salad bars under signage that it was “grown by Boys & Girls Club members.”
And, during the harvest season, the youth hold market nights to sell what they’ve grown to their families at low prices. The budding gardeners become student entrepreneurs; they handle advertising, merchandizing and venue setup, and are responsible for customer service and financial transactions.
“It’s one of my personal favorite experiences to watch the whole program come to fruition at these farmer’s markets,” Weckwerth adds.
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Like all Boys & Girls Clubs, the Bemidji chapter is its own non-profit organization. Funding for all of its programs, including the garden, comes from donations from the community and grants.
One of our commitments as a company is to help develop the potential of youth; the garden program does so in myriad ways. It teaches them gardening and good nutrition, increases their access to fresh food, provides regular physical activity outdoors, and introduces them to entrepreneurial activities.
The program’s benefits are tangible, not only in the produce grown by the youths’ care and effort, but also at the harvest celebration, a yearly dinner held to recognize the young gardeners who participate in the program.
Each participant gets the opportunity to address the crowd and share a notable moment from the season—their favorite fruit or vegetable, how to care for a certain type of plant, a memory they’ll cherish.
The message is clear. Time spent in the garden—hands in soil, time spent tending and nurturing greenery—takes root in the hearts and minds of youth, anchoring them in a space of health, happiness and wellbeing.
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