Approximately 80% of refugees that arrive in the Greater Atlanta area reside in the suburb of Clarkston. As a result, Clarkston High School welcomes a diverse community of students from more than 50 countries who speak more than 40 different languages.

The school has a year-round garden program that helps to educate and integrate this international community.

In 2015, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta hosted its first Youth Food Justice Summer Program, centered around the school garden, with support from a Whole Kids Foundation Garden Grant.

“In addition to garden skills, this summer program focused on job skills and community service,” says Jillian Sico, New Roots Program Coordinator for the IRC in Atlanta. “The term ‘food justice’ means equal access to food for all people. Because this is largely an immigrant and low-income population, we want to get the students and their families involved in gardening to increase their access to fresh, healthy foods.”

In its first year, the Youth Food Justice program served more than 60 students ranging in age from 10-19. Students spent nine weeks of the summer learning about a range of topics, including food justice, cooking, healthy eating, gardening and food safety.

The program also provided a 10-week internship for four high school students, who received a $250 stipend each to maintain the garden over the summer. Over that summer, the Youth Food Justice interns harvested, washed and distributed more than 100 pounds of garden-grown veggies and herbs to the student campers!

“The internship program included a morning garden work session from 8:30 a.m.–noon,” Jillian explains. “Each of the four students were in charge of a specific garden task for two weeks. Harvesting, washing and packing was one task. Compost and weed maintenance was another. Watering was a third. The fourth was tools and tool maintenance. One day a week the interns also were responsible for training the other program participants to help them, so the development of leadership skills was a big emphasis of the program.”

The rest of the campers arrived in the afternoon. DeKalb County provided a free lunch, followed by camp sessions from 1-5 p.m. With help from the IRC’s Refugee Youth Education team, Jillian developed the curriculum and activities, including lessons about sustainable growing, entrepreneurship skills, community gardening, developing a community service project and other related topics.

Several guest speakers visited the camp, and weekly field trips took the campers to destinations such as a refugee-run farm, local farmer’s markets, and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. A separate grant covered the costs of bus transportation for these outings.

Initially, the plan was to offer one cooking lesson during the camp, but the kids enjoyed hands-on learning so much that two more cooking days were added to the summer program.

“Many kids ate the free lunch, but it wasn’t always culturally appropriate so we decided to do more cooking and make foods and snacks the kids really liked,” Jillian says. “The first day we made a Burmese tea leaf salad that’s made from fermented tea leaves, cabbage, tomatoes – it’s a big salad with a spicy, tangy sauce. We also made summer fruit smoothies and personal pizzas using veggies from the garden.”

One of the great successes of the camp was helping the kids reconnect with healthy foods they enjoyed in their home countries.

“Most of the kids told us they’ve been exposed to more unhealthy foods and snacks, more meat and fewer vegetables since they’ve come to the United States,” Jillian explains. “At the end of summer, we hosted a feast for their parents and IRC staff. The kids all wrote down favorite recipes from home, and together we purchased ingredients and made those dishes.”

Each of the four interns also gave a PowerPoint presentation with photos they took in the garden—for some it was the first public speaking opportunity.

“I could just see how much their confidence had increased over the course of the summer,” Jillian says.

“I could just see how much their confidence had increased over the course of the summer.”

Overall the program was highly successful, and a lot was learned.

“We’ve found that having good partners is a huge key to our success. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without their help.”

For schools looking to establish new partnerships, Jillian recommends approaching local food banks or other food-related nonprofits that might be willing to sponsor garden work days or garden-based programs. In many cases, these outside organizations can also offer community service hours for high school students, which is a great way to increase student involvement, since many need to earn service hours for graduation.

Looking for ideas to jumpstart your own garden-related summer camp or youth food justice program? Learn more about the food justice movement and download related curriculum modules from The Children’s Aid Society. Also check out Whole Kids Foundation’s School Garden Lesson Plans for creative ideas to engage students in the garden.