Project CoffeeHouse, a nonprofit located in Montgomery, Pennsylvania, and winner of a 2020 Gro More Good Grassroots Grant, provides free meals and educational garden opportunities to local youth throughout summer months. Founded in 2001, Project CoffeeHouse was originally a youth empowerment center for at-risk teens in nearby Clinton County, but over time, the nonprofit moved locations and expanded its mission. The nonprofit’s programs now serve K-12 students in rural Lycoming County and are focused on “bringing young folks into contact with the natural world” according to Executive Director Lu Ann Potter.
Though things have looked a little different this summer due to COVID-19. Project CoffeeHouse’s flagship program, Summer Alive, is currently winding down it’s 5th season. Normally the camp runs four days a week for just over two months with participating youth taking part in structured activities in between breakfast and lunch. As a recognized USDA Summer Feeding Site, the program is able to provide both of these meals free of charge to all campers regardless of their economic background. The activities youth partake in run the gamut from outdoor art and music lessons to gardening.
According to Lu Ann, the garden is the heart of the Summer Alive program. Campers learn how to plant, tend, harvest, and prepare in the garden and are able to expand their pallets through taste tests in the outdoor kitchen. “The garden provides fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables that we can add to meals, thereby providing enhanced nutrition and exposure to a wide variety of foods that the children may not have experienced before” says Lu Ann. “Lots of these kids have never had the fresh fruits and vegetables we’re harvesting and eating during Summer Alive. If they’re the ones out there tending the garden, they’re more likely to try these foods and love them. It’s an experience that will stay with them forever.”
Another aspect of the Summer Alive camp is the YES! (Youth, Earth, Stewardship) Teen Leadership Program. For nine weeks, teens take on a role similar to that of a counselor-in-training, helping Summer Alive staff members deliver programming and assisting with garden maintenance and meal preparation. When the school year kicks off, YES! teens transition to a weekly after school program during which time students learn leadership and gardening skills and also explore the intersection between food and culture. “When you look at the way we do food, it touches upon a lot of the problems in society from poverty to food injustice” notes Lu Ann. “We have to do food differently and we definitely have to teach kids how to approach that.”
Changes to the program this year include adapting their traditional summer schedule to fit current restrictions and take proper safety precautions. While in-person Summer Alive programming was canceled for young children, YES! teens have continued to engage in socially distanced planting, garden maintenance, and harvesting, and free breakfasts and lunches have been distributed in record numbers. “We’re still using food from our garden in our summer meal,” Lu Ann shares. “We knew that this service was really needed. Many families in our community have experienced a loss of income during the pandemic and so we’re seeing a greatly increased economic need in our community.”
Despite the challenging times, Lu Ann is hopeful about the future. “Society has been changed and we’ll have to see what those changes mean for our next growing season,” she says “I think the Gro More Good Grassroots grant we received will really help us evolve and respond! We just want to help young kids grow up with more experiences in the garden and with food.”