Teen summer program grows veggies and leaders




Yes, the kids are learning how to slice and dice, why a nicely set table is important, and the difference homegrown produce can make to health and well-being.

But Teen Leadership Corps, an unusual summer program at Awbury Arboretum in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood, is about much more:

Good work habits, interpersonal and leadership skills, possible job opportunities, and "green" enterprises, such as a farmers market or herbal-products business.

"It's about meaningful work and growing leaders," says Anna Herman, one of its founders.

For four weeks this summer, 28 city kids, ages 14 to 20, are planting, harvesting, preparing and eating the freshest food imaginable, not from their own backyards, but from 10 raised beds, a small "farm" in the arboretum's 16-acre Agricultural Village, and assorted other gardens.

They include those cultivated by the formidable Herman, 53, of Mount Airy, a longtime proponent of healthy cooking and eating and "green" entrepreneurship. She's also an expert on all things culinary, from the origins of parmesan cheese to the uses of kohlrabi.

To pull them back in, Herman holds up a cilantro stem. "What herb is this?" she asks. The kids guess — Mint? Thyme?

"I know — Old Bay Seasoning!" announces Travis Hamilton, a 17-year-old who's got a lock on class comic and has mastered ribs and mac 'n' cheese.

His, and the group's, repertoire is about to expand. They're learning how to make pesto, vinaigrette, stuffed grape leaves, skillet coffee cake and grilled pizza — even phyllo.

It is not easy teaching teens, what with the spontaneous dancing, lure of social devices, and endless comedic patter. But the rewards are transformative.

And after all, the program has just started. It's hoped that the kids' need to establish a social pecking order will soon give way to the real "planting and harvesting" — of talent — that Herman and program cofounder Susan Willson, had in mind.

Here and there, Herman delivers little gems: Clean as you go. Don't play with the cheese. Don't chop green beans with a pizza cutter. Prepare ingredients before you cook. And compost every single scrap.

Then, after deciding that everyone should be served a little before anyone takes more, the kids dive into the pesto pasta they've spent the morning making.