Denyse Arteaga and Ian Rodella gather produce for the after school meals program. The food systems component of this youth program trains young people for jobs in the culinary arts, as well as managing greenhouses. (Photo submitted.)

Young people in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, are picking up career and educational skills as they work to solve some of their region’s most difficult problems.  

The Verde Community Project, spearheaded by Santa Fe YouthWorks, is a collaboration of 10 organizations, agencies and businesses seeking to create solutions to poverty and climate change in Santa Fe. 

The not-so-secret ingredients, says one of the project leaders, are connection and inclusion. 

“More and more, the solutions to our community’s greatest challenges — re-connecting our most vulnerable youth, improving food security, and addressing the unknown effects of what we call climate change — are asking us to work together across sectors, across the city,” says Kineret Yardena, Verde Community project coordinator. “We have all the resources we need here in Santa Fe. All the ingredients are here. With the Verde Project, we’re just linking everything together into an interdependent system, so that we’re not leaving anyone or any aspect out.” 

The lead agency, YouthWorks, is a project of YouthBuild USA, a national job training and leadership development program. The Verde Project includes initiatives to improve food security, to reduce carbon footprint and prevent wildfires, to expand housing options for young adults, and to address poverty and unemployment for youth. 

Santa Fe is a unique environment in which to do work labeled as “rural.” It’s one of the few metropolitan areas in the U.S. that has only one county. And it ranks in the bottom half of the nation’s 382 metro areas by population. The city has about 80,000 residents, and other parts of the county have another 70,000 residents or so. 

The Santa Fe YouthWorks serves as a hub for youth who travel to the city from small northern communities like Espanola, Pojoaque, Dixon, Abiquiu, Pecos and Mora Rowe. Because there is a shortage of dependable job and education training opportunities in those communities, Santa Fe YouthWorks works to serve these outlying rural communities. 

The food systems component of this work involves training youth for jobs in the culinary arts, as well as managing greenhouses. Youth in the program prepare approximately 350 meals a day that are provided to students at five low-income school sites. They also work in a greenhouse managing compost and growing vegetables, as well as providing low-cost fresh food boxes to Santa Fe neediest families.  

Joseph Salazar prepares food for the after school meals program. (Photo submitted.)

Alongside these job training programs, youth are completing their GEDs, getting valuable industry certifications, and/or taking college level courses. Ultimately, the program seeks to help youth find a meaningful and long-term career pathway.  

Partnerships are an important part of the Verde Project, and they include collaborations with local schools, a food bank, a mobile grocery, and a composting center. Another critical partnership is with renowned local Chef Carmen Rodriguez, who owns a catering business as well as a commercial kitchen that he makes available for this project. He recently joined the YouthWorks staff as the head culinary program coordinator and chef. Chef Carmen has embraced the partnership with the Verde Project, training youth in the culinary arts and inspiring some to finding a real passion for this work.  

Youth participant Denyse Arteaga says there’s a big need for the service. “These kids we feed, so many of them are homeless or just don’t have a lot. And they eat lunch at 10:50 a.m. and that’s all the food they have for the day. I feel like this is so awesome that we get to make them this food. I wish we would be doing this for more schools, because so many kids need this,”  

There are estimated to be as many as 3 million youth living in poverty who are not in education, employment or training, and these are the opportunity youth with whom YouthBuild programs around the country work.

YouthBuild does this through structured programs that include education opportunities, such as GED programs or community college classes, offered in parallel with job training and hands-on work opportunities. Traditionally, this work skills training and hands-on job experience has been in the construction trades, but YouthBuild programs are now branching out into other fields, such as IT, manufacturing, and food systems, such as the Verde Project work that Santa Fe YouthWorks is doing. The food systems work in particular is geared toward more rural areas and may create entrepreneurial opportunities for youth in less populated areas. 

The Verde Project was initially funded by a grant from the city of Santa Fe. Many of the project partners have made significant in-kind contributions to the project because they believe strongly in the potential of this work to transform the community. 

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