Innovative urban agriculture program teaches local high school students

Students from the Learn-Earn-Grow Milwaukee program pose in front of the UWM Panther Statue.

Several UWM schools and departments are supporting the summer wages for students in the new Learn-Earn-Grow Milwaukee (LEG MKE) program.

Under the tenet of “Education=Power and Food=Health,” program co-founder and former CHS staffer Bonnie Halvorsen, together with UWM Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Nelson and Cream City Conservation Corps Founder August M. Balland, designed an urban agriculture experience for MPS high school students.

LEG MKE gives access to new pathways into higher education via MATC and UWM. Simultaneously, the program gives a unique and experiential way for students to learn food literacy by growing, harvesting, selling and eating their own food. Students come for the paid summer jobs, and stay for the fun in the sun, job training and good eats.

During the course of the summer program, LEG MKE youth raise produce on three micro-farms while making regular visits to college campuses. They gain access to college resources, professors and staff and, more importantly, a vision of becoming a college student and having a future in their chosen career.

Students also engage in service learning with local urban agriculture and culinary mentors. Graduates are trained in resume writing, job interviewing, workplace etiquette, conflict management, financial literacy and food literacy.

“We don’t expect these students to become farmers,” said Halvorsen. “But we do build an expectation that they will graduate from high school and go on to higher education. And, we show them how to do it.”

There are two LEG MKE crews of 10 youth each: one at Vincent High School for Agricultural Sciences and the other at Washington High School for Information Technology. The crews are led by peer mentors, students in MATC’s Horticulture or Culinary Arts programs or in UWM’s Conservation and Environmental Sciences program.

What the LEG MKE graduates say.

  • “The knowledge that I’ve gained at LEG MKE was worth more than the money.”
  • “This experience impacted my life because I learned a ton of new things about being a good employee. Now I can use it to teach others.”
  • “I have more work experiences and learned how to eat more healthy.”
  • “I now love being outside. When we started to plant the food, it felt amazing because we were saving money and I learned how I can do it myself.”

“Once you’ve grown a carrot, you never unlearn how to grow a carrot,” Halvorsen added. “And every time you eat a carrot, you understand what it takes to grow one. That insight influences people’s eating decisions for the rest of their lives. For us, that’s a huge success.”

This year, LEG MKE is partnering with the Milwaukee Brewers. The students will work with local chefs to design healthy salad recipes, and then sell them at weekend games at Miller Park through a non-profit organization Roots For The Home Team.

Explore LEG MKE further and find out how to support the program. Housed in UWM’s Office of Sustainability and the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, the LEG MKE program has been endorsed by the M3 initiative, a partnership of UWM, MATC and MPS.