By Megan Northcote
When state legislators arrived at an annual conference at West Virginia State University last year, a 7-year-old girl marched up to numerous government officials, pointed to a brochure photograph of herself holding a tomato, and proudly announced, “I’m famous because I grew this tomato and I’m going to give you my autograph.”
This level of confidence was enough to convince legislators that the university’s SCRATCH program really is effective.
Now in its third year, SCRATCH teaches more than 80 children living in the most impoverished areas of Huntington, W. Va., how to grow and sell food locally through hands-on, educational activities. Funded by a five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, the program is run by WVSU’s Extension Services, a community outreach branch of the university.
“We want them to learn how to be horticultural producers and entrepreneurs, but some of these kids have been through so much [hardship] that we primarily want them to seek solace in the gardens and build life skills and self-esteem,” says Melissa Stewart, a WVSU faculty member and principal investigator for the SCRATCH grant.
Raised garden beds located in abandoned lots behind two community centers and one elementary school provide the children with a place to cultivate basic gardening skills. The Junior Master Gardener curriculum provides weekly activities to teach these skills, such as planting seeds arranged on paper towels to learn proper plant-spacing techniques.
To combat community hunger, these amateur gardeners are given first dibs on the produce they harvest; the rest, including more than 20 pounds of sweet potatoes grown last fall, is sold at The Wild Ramp, a local consignment-based farmers market.
This May, the children participated in National Lemonade Day, selling lemonade and seed bombs — bundles of soil containing seeds — at the market. Under the guidance of Unlimited Future Inc., a business incubator resource center, the children developed basic marketing and accounting strategies, creating original jingles and posters and setting their own prices for their products.
“The children have full ownership and direct control over what they do in the program,” Stewart says.
In the coming years, participants will work towards creating a more interactive children’s section at the market and partner with community members to learn how to make soaps, jams, sauces and other products of their choosing to sell.
For more information or to volunteer, visit scratchproject.org or call Stewart at (304) 532-1670.