Ana Rasmussen got a week's worth of work done at the Mi Jardin Verde, the community garden at , in a single morning Wednesday, thanks to the skilled labor of a dozen Food, What?! summer crew.
The teenagers built a mountain of a compost pile, hand weeded a garden plot one-eighth of an acre in size and built a trellis for the green beans.
"I thought they were bush beans," Rasmussen admitted as the group unwound fencing for to support the pole beans.
This is all in a day's work for the Food, What?! crew.
The UC Santa Cruz-based program is part youth empowerment, part food justice, part job training. Youth from Watsonville to Santa Cruz take part in spring internships, summer jobs, fall business management positions and more.
During the summer, the youth work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. four days a week for eight weeks. They make just under $1,300 in wages while learning a lot about how to garden, culinary arts and community service, according to Food What?! Director Doron Comerchero.
The summer crew, in particular, gets to dig into many aspects of the community. Comerchero offers the youth up for "The Blasts," at school and nonprofit gardens. The short, intense projects send a dozen youth to sites like Mi Jardin Verde to work for three to four hours.
Rasmussen took them up on the offer to help her maintain the garden she is cultivating for , a Watsonville food pantry.
"They're pretty skilled," she said, admiring the tarped-over compost pile.
"No one's in the schools, so they need help," Comerchero explained.
Food What?! youth also grow a share of garden crops for each of their families in plots at UCSC. On Thursdays, they staff a farm stand at Gault Elementary School and work at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz. Fridays, they head out to Freewheelin' Farm on the North Coast to "learn how to work hard," Comerchero said.
Every day also comes with a culinary lesson, Comerchero added.
The aim of the program is to partner with low-income and at-risk youth to grow, cook, eat, and distribute healthy, sustainably raised food and address food justice issues in our community, according to the Food What?! website.
"We learn a lot of stuff about these crops that we grow and harvest," said Chrsitan Magaleno, an 18-year-old from Watsonville.
Magaleno's own family has garden plots at , so helping there was especially meaningful for him.
Chris Wall, a 17-year-old from Las Lomas, said he likes that Food What?! keeps him active.
They are "stellar youth who know how to farm and garden," Comerchero said.