Anne Genson is a force of nature with a huge heart for kids and a passion for healthy eating. Nine years ago while working with the Healthy Kids Club sponsored by Poudre Valley Hospital, she set a course to make a big impact in the lives of kids and teens in the community. Her job was to meet 30 – 50 kids in their trailer park community as the got off the bus, play a game, give a nutrition lesson, and offer them a healthy snack. She had been doing this for six years and while the work was rewarding, Genson began to realize that her influence had plateaued. The phrase “my mom won’t buy it” was becoming commonplace after her nutrition lessons to get them to eat more vegetables. Genson acknowledged the problem and set out to find a solution.
As an experiment, she wanted to see if the kids would eat healthier food regularly if there were no financial barriers. With a grant of $300 from the City of Fort Collins and the Gardens on Spring Creek she installed, with the help of her husband Todd, a garden bed in her backyard. With no skills or knowledge in farming or even backyard gardening, her goal was to set up a free farmers market in one of her mobile home communities with food she grew and donations from neighbor’s gardens. “I didn’t even set out to grow the food, I just thought as a community we could solve this problem and help feed those who couldn’t afford it,” Genson said. She excitedly plastered the park with signs alerting residents about the upcoming market and when the first day of the market dawned, she had 15 snap peas. “I had worked in these communities long enough to know that if you don’t show up, you’re nobody,” Genson remarked. She bought some hummus and decided to do a tasting. Six elderly women with shopping bags were waiting when Genson pulled up. Freaking out on the inside, she casually set up her table with hummus and a bowl with 15 snap peas and announced that today was a tasting only, but that the next week she would be back with more. “They were so nice about it; some of them said they had never had hummus or snap peas,” Genson recalled, “and by the next week I had produce.” People started donating in her neighborhood to the cause as well. “I would pull up to my house and the whole porch with be filled with bags of produce,” Genson said.
After a few years of growing the free farmers market program in the one and then two trailer communities, and officially becoming a 501c3, Sproutin’ Up added the Apprenticeship Program. The program is for kids ages 10-13 who come for an hour a week in the summer for 10 weeks to learn both gardening skills and nutrition education. In addition, they earn a $10 weekly cash stipend for their work helping with the free farmers market. This was the bulk of the programming for Sproutin’ Up and was manageable for Genson who did all of this in her “free time” while working two additional jobs and raising three kids. “It was nights and weekends for a lot of years,” Genson recalled, “up until this year, I have never paid myself.”
Sproutin’ Up expanded to a third trailer community, Poudre Valley Mobile Home Park, that didn’t have any garden area, so they worked the beds behind the food bank. “Riding a bike with 14 boys in tow down College Avenue was terrifying,” Genson recalled, “but somehow I did it for three years.” They would plant, weed, harvest and fill a bike trailer to bring back to the community. Three years ago they received a grant from The Growing Project to convert the cement slab in the park into a community garden.
Recognizing that Sproutin’ Up is how she wants to spend more of her time, Genson looked at ways that the non-profit could expand its income. “We needed to become more self-sufficient and not so reliant on grants, fundraising events and donations,” Genson remarked, “it was fine for the first six years, but we kept growing and had more kids who wanted to participate and we needed more produce.” A few years ago they added youth summer camps and then in 2017 Genson set about to create a first for Northern Colorado: a youth run Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. With 25 CSA members supporting the farm, Sproutin’ Up was able to employed four teenagers ages 14-16 to work throughout the growing season learning farming and job skills while earning an hourly wage, up to $1,000. This program quickly became her favorite program because of the larger life moments the teens experienced beyond the job and farming skills . “Half of the kids were low income and half weren’t and that combination was AWESOME,” Genson said, “they are learning something about themselves, about other people, about the way our community works together.”
The youth run CSA is also an amazing opportunity to teach life and job skills to the upcoming youth generation who may be entering their first job in a few years. It was the first summer running a neighborhood CSA with her son that she realized teens had no idea what the expectations were for a paid job. It was the little things like texting when they should be working, wandering off for 20 minutes to go to the restroom. He wasn’t doing it maliciously, he just didn’t know. “We sending them into their first jobs with no work skill sets and how to talk to adults,” Genson said, “and a business isn’t going to take the time to train them on these habits; their only recourse is to let them go.” With the CSA program, “I can take the whole summer training them” and take advantage of teachable moments to coach the teens. A good example of this from last summer is when Genson found one of the youth farmers taking a nap in between the tomatoes. If this happened on the job no employer would be ok with that and would probably let the employee go. Genson explained to the group how they were getting paid by the hour and that the expectation is that you work for the entire hour or you don’t get paid. “They had no concept of getting paid hourly; we take it for granted that kids know all of these things that we know as adults,” Genson said.
This year the program is structured so that teens work the farm on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Wednesdays are a rotation of work skills and going out into the community to visit businesses. “We are turning out kids who can be productive in our community and are ready for work,” Genson said, “at the end of three years they leave with a wide array of job skills, a honed work ethic and meaningful connections.” The goal this year is to hire 10 youth employees, but a lot will depend on funding. Sproutin’ up is also seeking employer partners who are interested in sponsoring and potentially hiring youth who go through the program. I asked her how many CSA members she was going for this year, thinking she would want to double it or more, but she had a different answer. “25 again,” Genson replied, “we aren’t, but we are, in the business of being a CSA farm; it is really the vehicle to teach our kids, so I don’t feel like it ever needs to be a huge number.”
In addition to the Youth Run CSA and the Apprenticeship programs, Sproutin’ Up in collaboration with Wunder Juice created a 10-week Entrepreneurship program delivered in middle school classrooms where kids start their own local food business. The students write a mission statement, learn about vision and values, look at product analysis and trends of a juicing business and a CSA and learn how to juice. Unfortunately, Genson explained, the schools love it, but there isn’t enough time in the school year to incorporate the program. As an alternative, Genson is looking at tying in the entrepreneurship program with the Wednesday education through the CSA with a salsa product the teens produce at the end of the season.
“I think about the kids that are coming from neighborhoods that are not seeing this [entrepreneurship] in their daily lives and the impact we could have on their lives,” exclaimed Genson. She relayed a story from last year where two of the boys were helping her with the chickens behind Jessup Farm and asked her about the building to the north. She told them that that was the jail and they shrugged and said “that’s were we will be when we grown up”. They listed every male in their life who has been in jail, was in jail, is going to jail and she replied that “you don’t have to, we can give you options.” “Sproutin’ Up won’t solve all of the problems,” Genson remarked, “but if we can make a small dent, I am happy.”
This year, Genson has a goal for 50 kids to go through the Apprenticeship Program as well, and she wants to incorporate the same diversity structure that happened with the CSA program. 15-20 kids will come for a couple of hours one day a week to help with the garden beds and get ready for the farmers market.
The progression from helping to get a community garden up and running and then transition it to the families that livethere has been a really nice model for the non-profit. They will still run the free farmers markets using their 8′ bike trailer that the kids pull through the neighborhood and distribute produce sourced from the Sproutin’ Up gardens and donations through the Plant It Forward program through the Food Bank of Larimer County and The Gardens on Spring Creek. Sproutin’ Up recently decided to go deep and serve one community, Poudre Valley Mobile Home Park. This park has 300 unit and the kids typically run out of produce after the first 25 homes. “This year will be interesting,” Genson explained, “because we have set a really high goal to have enough for every family who wants food, every week.”
This year, Sproutin’ Up is relocating the farm to Botanique on Mulberry just east of I-25. The new farm will be all raised beds, which means her husband will be busy doubling their current stock of raised beds. They are hosting a family friendly Dirty Boots Work Day on April 21st (Earth Day weekend) to get the beds prepped and ready to be planted. To sign up click here. And with all of the gardens in the three trailer communities she has worked with transitioned, she wants to bring more kids up to the new farm. Whether it is through the apprenticeship, youth CSA or one of several youth summer week and day camps that cater to kids from 3 – 10 years of age, there is something for everyone at Sproutin’ Up. Want to learn more about the programming or how you can get involved? Visit their website at http://www.sproutinup.com.
If you are interested in joining the CSA, you can find Genson at the CSA Fair on April 7th from 10am-1pm. “We want a community of members who believe in community and want to eat and grow together,” Genson added. This year they are altering their market-style CSA to be a take what you need each week. “This is what we do in our free farmers markets; we never limit the amount people take, we just ask them to take what they need for their family, Genson said, I have found people to be much more cognizant of others around them when they are a part of something bigger.” By purchasing a CSA share with Sproutin’ Up, you are supporting a teenager learning job skills and feeding those who in lower income neighborhoods. Their CSA motto sums it up well, eat great, do good.