Fresh air can do the mind and body good. Research supports outdoor recreation as a promising health win for youth in a post-COVID culture. A recent study from North Carolina State University concluded that participation in outdoor activity during the pandemic actually improved adolescents’ well-being and mental health. Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2021 findings showed nature-based projects helped teenagers cope with pressures like the coronavirus and natural disasters.
“Poverty, crime and family hardships are often other stressors for Black youth,” said Atiba Jones, 38, executive director of The SAVE Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. And poverty level is known to impact mental health severely in the Black community. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, African Americans living below the poverty level — compared to those over twice the poverty level — are twice as likely to report significant psychological distress. Prior to COVID, suicide in 2019 was the second leading cause of death for Black people ages 15 to 24. The death rate of suicide for Black men became four times greater than for Black women the year before that.
Jones recognizes and is reacting to the seriousness of saving Black youth. A tangible answer being the introduction of outdoor education in urban spaces. For social, physical and mental health. Standing for service, agriculture, vocation and entrepreneurship, The SAVE Institute incorporated during 2019 as well. Becoming a right-on-time, two-year alternative for high school scholars to realize their worth. Tap into creative, problem-solving and decision-making talents. Its accelerated environmental curriculum helps students engage with the natural world. Actively guiding intellectual, emotional and behavioral development. Deliberately pipelining outdoor lessons into Black Belt Region land-grant institutions or agribusiness careers.
This year’s cohort of 20 Black males includes 9th through 12th graders. A culmination of Jones’ 21-year groundwork in youth development, education and mental health. “The research backs that agriculture has the same positive effects in nature as camping, fishing and hunting,” said Jones. “We’re also addressing healthier living and eating.” Equally building student self-esteem and discovering purpose through servant leadership. Coursework is completed at two garden sites: a half acre in Locust Grove and exactly 1 acre in neighborhood Glenrose Gardens. Combined, the locations teach SAVE scholars modern techniques of growing organic produce and caring for micro-livestock — goats and poultry — in urban spaces.
One of the year’s first major tests in agripreneurship came in the form of a farmers’ market held Sept. 24 in the Glenrose community. Jones charged the young producers with handling logistics for their inaugural afterschool event. Organize vendors. Design promotional materials and display setup. Appoint each other roles to serving customers and managing foot traffic. “It’s teaching me a lot about selling to people in person,” said 14-year-old Serigne Marone, whose school days are regularly committed to the institute’s eight goats and planting kale.
The teens stocked their organic grocery with farm fresh eggs, apples, grapes, pears, blackberries and strawberries. Institute co-founder Aisha Edwards supplied homegrown herbs and species (ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, star anise, darjeeling tea seeds, basil, fenugreek and rooibos) to the store. “We want to make sure our community knows about all these healthy eating options,” Edwards said. “I hope these markets show our students how to communicate the benefits of these foods with confidence to customers.” The future farmers plan to host local food markets at least once a month and as weather permits.
Jones rounds out their agribusiness acumen as a certified journeyman farmer. Funded by a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and developed by The University of Georgia (UGA) Cooperative Extension, the certificate program primes beginner farmers for starting a sustainable, small crop or ruminant farm. With vegetable, fruit and animal husbandry operations in motion, SAVE is in the process of securing a third farming space in Griffin. The 3-acre plot will extend the cohort’s growing to blueberries and possibly beekeeping.
Days off farm site, scholars study with subject teachers in Glenrose Gardens Community labs. Industry professionals make special guest appearances to educate about innovative entrepreneurship. Offer instruction in construction and the culinary arts. Since it’s a fairly new school, Development Manager Felicia R. Jackson has been forging area partnerships and sponsorships. The institute just wrapped up its 60-in-60 campaign to raise $60,000 in 60 days to support the institute’s scholarship fund.
“These campaigns assist students whose family may be experiencing financial hardships,” said Jackson. “Next, we’re launching our fall campaign to continue operations, provide new educational tools and bring in more experts and resources.” Like the Glenrose community, other local partners of the program are AgriUnity, Sinewy Organics, Makkah International Institute, CMC Development Group, Center for Civic Innovation and Sacred Health Movement. After two years of classroom instruction and outdoor learning with these groups, students earn both a high school diploma and vocational certifications.
Youth development programs in agriculture are growing city trends in Georgia. Similar Atlanta initiatives engaging underrepresented youth in outdoor education:
Manrrs: A national society headquartered in Atlanta, the nonprofit established during the 1980s to extend academic and professional opportunities for minorities in ag, natural resources and related sciences.
Greening Youth Foundation: The environmental educational organization started in 2007 to teach youth about outdoor lifestyles and conservation careers.
Black Too Earth: Launched during 2019, this nonprofit organization links Black communities to Black environmental organizations by way of farm tours.
The SAVE Institute reinforces the metro area’s food-producing spaces and community-driven agriculture. Collaborative network Food Well Alliance published the capital’s first local food baseline report in 2017. Highlighting the healthy, economic, environmental and community benefits to a strong urban food system. At the time of the assessment, there were close to 300 community gardens in Metro Atlanta and more than 63 farmers’ markets. Agriculture contributed to roughly $74.9 billion to Georgia’s economy.
That said, UGA’s Center for Agribusiness & Economic Development 2021 Ag Snapshots report showed 2019 ag contributions dropped. Output to Georgia’s $1.12 trillion economy only reached $70.1 billion. With vegetable/fruit and animal husbandry operations currently up and running, SAVE is in the process of securing a third farming space in Griffin. “Agriculture is one of those cracks we’re trying to fill with more Black youth involvement,” Jones said. “Our growing network of ag instructors and urban farms is teaching them the importance of neighborhood food supply and conservation.”