Nonprofit Urban Roots Grows in Austin

By Emily Laskowski – November 1, 2014
photo by Eva Hershaw

The current generation of youth in the United States faces certain challenges unknown to its predecessors. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, the consequences of unhealthy eating have manifested in unprecedented percentages of obese or overweight children, teenagers, and adults. A recent study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic health organization, reported that in 2013, slightly more than 30 percent of adults in Texas were obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 14 percent of high school students in Texas have been obese since 2003. 

Improving access to healthy food is one strategy that the organization Urban Roots, a local nonprofit focused on youth development through sustainable agriculture, employs to improve the lives of young people in Austin. Originally founded in 2007 as a branch program of another nonprofit, the now-closed YouthLaunch, Urban Roots became its own independent organization in 2011.

Executive Director Max Elliott has been with the program since its rebirth in 2011 and credits the current local food craze as one factor in the success of the organization. What makes him feel successful as the director is watching participants make that connection with their food source. “The youth really enjoy getting their hands dirty, and, more importantly, they love eating fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the garden,” said Elliott. After witnessing the effect Urban Roots could have on the community, he decided to expand the nonprofit. “I saw an opportunity for greater impact, and [that’s when] I pitched the idea of a youth-development farm project.”

In its first year, the Urban Roots farm project produced 18,000 pounds of produce with the help of about 18 young interns. Now, the organization provides at least 30 paid internships to young people between the ages of 14 and 17 each year. Interns work on Urban Roots’ 3.5 acre farm in East Austin, where they’re pursuing an increased goal of growing 30,000 pounds of produce this year. 

On an annual basis, 40 percent of the Urban Roots’ harvest is donated to local soup kitchens and food pantries; the other 60 percent is sold at farmers’ markets through Urban Roots’ community supported agriculture (CSA) Program, and wholesale. Through the assistance the nonprofit offers outside organizations, interns at Urban Roots learn about hunger and food issues in Austin. Throughout their 25-week long spring or summer internship, participants also learn valuable lessons on sustainable agriculture and healthy living practices as well as life and job skills.

“[Urban Roots] taught me that no one is too young to make a difference,” said Zacil, a 2011 graduate from the internship program. “In reality, it’s the opposite. The youth are the ones that make the biggest impact in the world. They just don't realize it. Urban Roots then becomes the glasses for them to see this, and more."

Elliott is honored by the opportunity to “use food and farming to transform the lives of young people and to inspire, engage, and nourish the community,” He agrees that the impact the program has on interns like Zacil and others who come within reach of Urban Roots is profound. “Whether it’s the volunteers at a Saturday volunteer day, customers at the farmers markets, constituents at Caritas (another of Urban Roots’ hunger relief partners), or the families of the youth themselves, the benefits [of the program] reach at least 10,000 people in the community each year,” he said.

With its deep roots and healthy appetite for growth, Urban Roots is poised to grow into the Austin community even more.


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