Growing Up With Youth Farm: Fostering Leadership and Civic Engagement Skills Through Urban Farming

Youth Farm participants learn the importance of sustainability and civic engagement through urban farming. The organization works with young people aged 9-24. Photo provided by Youth Farm.


Ask Yasmin Banishoraka about astragalus.

The 21-year-old University of Minnesota student and Youth Farm steward can talk at length about the plant’s medicinal qualities as well as other herbs that possess healing properties. Sumac, Banishoraka explains, is a good astringent – for those unfamiliar, that means it can help to clear up mucus.

Banishoraka has been a Youth Farm participant for more than a decade and exemplifies the knowledge and sense of community engagement that the organization instills in young people across the Metro.

Youth Farm is a youth development program based in Minneapolis that manages about a dozen urban gardens in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Started in 1995, the organization teaches youth leadership skills through sustainable farming.

Youth Farm engages more than 1,500 youth throughout the growing season and school year. The organization works with young people aged 9-24, and provides different roles for participants based on their age. Youth Farm has around a dozen garden sites it manages, offers cooking classes, and participates in community events and farmers’ markets.

The food grown at Youth Farm’s gardens is either free for the public to take or somehow distributed back into the community.

“Youth Farm is kind of difficult to describe because we have so many different facets of what we do,” said Youth Farm Development and Communications Associate Erin Finneman. “Essentially we’re rooted in being a youth development program, but we do all of our work through farming.”

At its core, Youth Farm strives to empower youth to become civically engaged and confident. Banishoraka joined the Lyndale Neighborhood Association Board when she was 18; at the time, she says, she was the youngest board member ever to join.

Banishoraka joined Youth Farm when she was nine and is a semester away from graduation. After college, she’s interested in working in public policy. In particular, Banishoraka would like to help fix the affordable housing crisis.

“My work with Youth Farm has really cemented my love of community building and community organization,” she said. “Without being involved in Youth Farm I would’ve never run for the board and never discovered that affordable housing was something that I was really passionate about.”

Youth Farm is providing access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods. Certain neighborhoods in North Minneapolis, for example, qualify as “food deserts” according to the federal government. This means there is limited access to affordable, nutritious food in the area.

More than 23% of people are living below the poverty line Off Site Link in the neighborhood surrounding Youth Farm’s Emerson Avenue Garden.

“We never say that food or farming or sustainability is our main focus, it really is youth development,” said Finneman. “But when you start to look at sustainability, it plays into a larger societal issue. These youths are impacting the food systems in their own neighborhoods. What better way to be a leader than that?”

Some Youth Farm stewards – participants aged 19-24 – have joined the organization as full-time employees after going through the program. Banishoraka isn’t “100% sure” what the future holds. However, when asked how long she plans to stay with Youth Farm, she seemed fairly confident.

“There’s no end date on that as far as I know,” she said.