Spotlight: Urban Roots
Lick Honest Ice Creams started with a strong belief in using pure, wholesome foods. It’s not only a pillar of our business, but also the reason why we’ve fostered such important and close relationships with Austin organizations who are equally as passionate about their purpose.
Urban Roots is not just where we source our figs from to create our seasonal Fromage & Fig ice cream flavor. The nonprofit organization is a place where youth can go to to connect with the earth, grow produce, learn business skills and get a leg up in the professional world. And that’s something we can get behind.
“Yes we’re growing food, but we’re also growing young leaders,” said Emily Mares, Urban Roots Development Director.
Urban Roots uses “food and farming to transform lives and inspire, engage, and nourish the community.” To do this, they provide various internship opportunities to youth. Together, they work the land of a 3.5-acre farm in East Austin and harvest over 25,000 pounds of food. The food then goes back to the community through private wholesalers and the Sustainable Food Center market. 40 percent of the food is directly donated to soup kitchens and food pantries like Meals on Wheels, putting fresh product into the hands of those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
The agency started in 2008 as a program under another youth development organization called Youth Launch. Although the parent organization closed in 2011, the success of Urban Roots led them to file as an independent nonprofit.
As development director, Emily is in charge of fundraising as well as communications and marketing for the organization. Since joining the agency in June 2015, she’s learned that one of her favorite parts about her job is watching the young adults from the beginning of their internships to the end.
“Our young people are pretty phenomenal and it’s really amazing to see what happens over the course of the season,” Emily said.
Having just wrapped up another season on the farm, Emily has seen some of their most reserved interns become confident in their work, showing adult volunteers around the farm and talking about growing food. The organization empowers their youth interns by never calling them “kids,” instead using terms that showcase their strength, independence and capability.
“They have so much capacity and, not to be cheesy, they really are our future,” Emily said. “I think it's important to provide them opportunities to learn about the world, to learn about themselves, to learn about the earth and to understand and connect with food, and the soil, and to also understand how all of that plays into connecting with the community and to leverage their own power for good.”
To become an Urban Roots intern is not much different than going through an interview process for a job. A candidate must fill out an application with a few essay portions, as well as provide a reference whom is not a family member. Although the organization usually cannot accept more than half of those who apply each year, they interview every applicant to give them a valuable learning opportunity.
“We try to be thoughtful and provide feedback on why they weren’t chosen and encourage them to apply the following year,” Emily said. “We’re looking for youth who are willing to commit to the process.“
Urban Roots’ signature program is the farm internship for teenagers. Together, they tend to over 40 different types of vegetables and roots using very little machinery and no chemicals. Figs are their biggest crop in their orchard, with a harvest in the summer months of 500 to 1,000 pounds each year.
“Our work has the physical manifestation. It’s hard to describe what youth development is, but when we describe the farm it makes it a little more visual and tangible,“ Emily said.
From herbs like basil and parsley to tomatoes, okra, onions, garlic and squash, the interns as well as 1,000 adult volunteers help make the farm a success. In turn, Urban Roots hopes a connection with the earth and their mission gives something back to those who work the land.
“We believe if you donate your time or monetary gift that you’re part of the Urban Roots family and we hope, by giving of yourself, you’re experiencing something transformational,” Emily said. “That it’s really a two-way street. They’re not just a means to us, they’re part of what makes this work and what makes this possible.”
In the fall, the organization boots up its second advanced leadership program. Less farm-based, this internship takes a deeper dive into leadership curriculum and culminates in an annual Youth Food Jam, a day-long conference led by its youth for other Austin-area youth. Together, they will celebrate healthy lifestyles and food justice.
The organization is also actively recruiting for its new program. Aimed at ages 18-23, the fellowship will be an opportunity for furthering leadership development as youth are given the opportunity to serve in a mentor role for those participating in their signature program.
Beyond developing healthy relationships with food, learning job and overall leadership skills, Emily said there’s a fourth goal of Urban Roots: exposing youth to long-term community service. The organization not only donates nearly half of its produce to kitchens, but interns also spend several shifts working in them, cooking the produce they harvested and serving meals to guests.
“We want them to know that they not only can make a difference, but that they should,” Emily said.
To learn more about Urban Roots and how you can get involved, visiturbanrootsatx.org/get-involved.