Urban Roots gives Austin youth hands-on experience while growing fresh food for the city

Hannah Heckman

For a few young people in Austin, confidence, community and carrots all come from the same place: Austin’s Urban Roots farm.

Founded in 2008, Urban Roots is a farm-based youth leadership program located in East Austin. According to the program’s website, young people live by the motto — “Empower Youth. Nourish Community.” — by growing over 25,000 pounds of fresh produce a year with the help of paid interns chosen through a biannual application process. Program director Ian Hunter-Crawford said Urban Roots acts as a retreat and outlet for people ages 14 to 23 in Austin while providing them with leadership skills and work ethic.

“We look for kids who are excited to do the program because it’s hard work,” Hunter-Crawford said. “The level of performance in school isn’t really taken into account. The purpose of the program is to even the playing field among young people of all backgrounds.” 

For these young people, an internship at Urban Roots means waking up at 6 a.m. to go to a long day of work on the farm, said Dorien Hopkins, a 15-year-old Urban Roots intern.

Another intern, 14-year-old Aaron Degante, said while getting there early may be a hassle, the community makes it worth it. 

“The people here, they’re like another family,” Degante said. “It’s clear that they appreciate us being here.” 

Hunter-Crawford and Heather Alden, Urban Roots development contractor, said the most rewarding aspect of their jobs is working with the youth.

“They are so thoughtful and interested,” Alden said. “It just makes me feel good about the future because I know that these kids are equipped with confidence and skills that will make them good leaders in our community.”

On the farm, participating youth learn to harvest crops and gain basic agricultural knowledge. They also develop significant social and leadership skills through leading farm tours, attending farmers markets and interacting with people who are different than themselves.

While the youth interns work to gain important life skills, Alden said, they are also giving back to the community. Of the produce grown, Urban Roots donates 40% to organizations dedicated to relieving hunger in Austin such as Meals on Wheels Central Texas and the Central Texas Food Bank. The other 60% is sold at farmers markets or to local grocery stores. 

Donating produce is not the only way Urban Roots serves the people of Austin.

“Every Wednesday we would go somewhere to help people out,” Hopkins said. “For example, my group went to the Ronald McDonald House Charities and cooked for those kids. It made me happy to see how happy they were because of the work we had done.” 

Hunter-Crawford said he believes that Urban Roots’ synergy with the community sets it apart from other youth leadership programs in Austin.

“A lot of these programs work with youth in isolation, but the entire model of our program is to get the youth out into the community, whether that be public speaking or running the farmers market,” Hunter-Crawford said.