For two years, a group of juniors at Washington Academy in East Machias has used technology to combat food insecurity in their county.
The innovative project is part of a national program offered through a partnership between the National 4-H Council and Microsoft. The organizations help close the connectivity gap in rural areas by empowering teens to bring technology to their communities.
The innovative project is part of a national program offered through a partnership between the National 4-H Council and Microsoft.
The organizations help close the connectivity gap in rural areas by empowering teens to bring technology to their communities.
The 4-H Tech Changemakers program puts teens at the forefront of creating change, allowing them to serve as digital ambassadors by equipping them with tools, resources and technical partners. The project spans more than 90 communities in 15 states, including Maine’s Washington County.
The program was created to get youth and adults to work together to solve a problem in their community, according to team member Paige Bell of Edmunds, Maine.
Washington County has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the state at 15%, according to Feeding America.
“Food insecurity was something we could see clearly all around us,” says team member Forrest Perkins of Marshfield, Maine, noting that a lot of local children receive free or reduced-price lunch at school, and many adults, especially seniors, don’t have access to or can’t afford fresh, healthy food.
“Growing up on a family farm, I’ve known there is high demand for good food, and we have to not only know about good food, but also how to handle it (and) grow it, and what to do with it,” Bell says.
The three-year project has received a grant, as well as Surface Pro tablets, from Microsoft and the National 4-H Council.
Six teen leaders have collaborated with UMaine Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, Healthy Acadia and local businesses to revitalize a 3,000-square-foot garden at their school. The improvements include installation of a fence and raised beds.
In addition to the core group of six, 28 other students have participated in the project. Through the support of youth volunteers and community partnerships, the garden grows produce for the Machias Food Pantry, which serves up to 400 people a month.
The group also has created a website, Community FEAST (Food, Education, Agriculture, Sustainability, Technology), where community members can connect to farms and food pantries to find locally grown food, as well as learn more about countywide efforts addressing food insecurity. The group’s Instagram account, communityfeast4h, features photos and videos of its work in the garden and engagement in the community.
“It feels really good because you’ll farm, collect all the produce, and then you’ll go back and think, ‘People are eating this. I’m helping to feed my community.’” Forrest Perkins
“The community has a resource it can use,” Perkins says of the website.
The team also hosted several Hour of Code sessions in which they taught computer coding basics to elementary school students, as well as their parents and grandparents.
The students have learned more about the “heart” component of 4-H, says Jen Lobley, a UMaine Extension professor in 4-H and volunteer development, who is working with the youth on the project. They’ve also learned about gardening, nutrition, public speaking, interviewing, capturing video and creating a website.
“They have come to have a better understanding of the issue of hunger and how it affects people in their local community,” Lobley says. “They have learned the power and joy of giving and doing for others.”
Bell and Perkins say they enjoy making a difference.
“I love being part of this project because I definitely feel like I’m helping. Especially now (that we’re) getting the food that we’ve grown into the local food pantry,” says Bell, who adds that food pantry clients seem to be enjoying the produce, as well.
“They can definitely see that we’re creating something that will hopefully encourage other people to do the same thing and make a difference.”
Bell, who lives on a ninth-generation farm, says the project has expanded her thoughts about growing food, as well as working with others toward a shared goal.
“Food has always been really important to me,” she says. “I understand the importance of healthy food, and I feel like it’s really important for other kids to be able to understand that, as well.”
By creating a website and posting to Instagram, the students facilitate connections between farmers and customers, and offer a glimpse into their garden’s progress, Bell says.
“It feels really good because you’ll farm, collect all the produce, and then you’ll go back and think, ‘People are eating this. I’m helping to feed my community,’” Perkins says.
The students plan to add content to the website, including more local food resources and ways others can help combat food insecurity and become involved in the project.