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New program engages teens in food issues

Although she’s lived in Iowa all her life, 16-year-old Lexi Brennan of West Des Moines didn’t know much about agriculture until last summer.

New program engages teens in food issues

Although she’s lived in Iowa all her life, 16-year-old Lexi Brennan of West Des Moines didn’t know much about agriculture until last summer.

“Even though Des Moines isn’t exactly a huge city, I still wasn’t very familiar with the strong agricultural community of Iowa’s past and present,” she says. “When I had the opportunity to spend the week at a camp in a more rural area of Iowa, I was excited to learn more about agriculture and how much it affects the world around me.

The Real Soil, Real Food program allowed me to explore the impacts of agriculture and food production on the environment and society.”

Now a sophomore at Valley High School, Lexi was one of seven high school students from Iowa and Illinois who tested The Wallace Centers of Iowa’s “Real Soil, Real Food, A Real Difference” program during their summer vacation. This new program is a nine-day educational experience for teens that combines the study of current food issues with team-building experiences, hands-on learning and conversations with experts.

During the session, students study local and global concerns such as food insecurity and hunger, food safety, biotechnology, and how the environment is affected by food production. In addition to studying food issues in-depth, the students work with each other during daily team-building exercises, gardening, meal preparation and project planning.

Field trips to relevant sites such as the Creston farmers market, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and the Neely-Kinyon Research Farm operated by Iowa State University enhance the course materials. Each day concludes with time for reflection and dialogue.

“Last summer’s pilot program was a valuable learning experience for us,” says Diane Weiland, CEO of The Wallace Centers of Iowa, or WCI. “The pilot program helped us understand how enthusiastic teens can be about learning, how eager they are to take part in activities, their ability to connect issues, and how easily they bond and work together. The participants exceeded our expectations in these areas, and their feedback assisted us in preparing for this year’s participants.”

Ben Mullin, 15, of Creston notes that the program includes a variety of activities that keep participants engaged. “The part I most enjoyed was our field trip to Des Moines visiting Pioneer Hi-Bred International headquarters,” he says. “That afternoon, we went up to Woodward and saw the Picket Fence Creamery. I highly recommend their mint ice cream!”

But the program isn’t all fun and games. It’s serious and focused, too. “We covered issues everywhere from food insecurity to obesity to producing local food and everything in between,” Mullin adds. “We learned a lot about the importance of leadership, as well as the importance of physical fitness and food safety. Food safety was one of the more important topics for me, because I run a small business at the Creston farmers market baking and selling food.”

During an Oxfam meal activity, participants and guests sat on the floor to consume plain rice and water to represent the most food-insecure of the world’s population.

Mullin described the circumstances of his persona to the rest of the group. Sharing the meager meal and asking questions were Lisa Swanson of Orient, a WCI program assistant; Sara Mack of Greenfield; Brittany Firch of Fontanelle; Bill Freese of the Iowa Department of Human Services; former World Food Prize intern Gwen Varley of Johnston; Max Wallace of Watseka, Ill.; and Tyler Ford of Fontanelle.

As part of the nutrition curriculum, participants assessed their own eating and exercise habits.

After the summer camp, students will plan and implement a related independent project that involves their peers. Under the guidance of WCI staff, each student has about a year to complete his or her project. Results will be shared with the incoming class and posted to the Real Soil, Real Food, A Real Difference website at

Leadership, problem-solving

“This program centers on food, which seems like a simple subject,” says Weiland. “In reality, there are many facets to food such as obesity, gardening, nutrition, food insecurity, cultural traditions, environmental footprint and food safety. One way to broaden the impact of the program is to have teens teaching teens. That is the premise of challenging participants to do an independent project engaging their peers.” 

Deb Hall of Adair County Extension developed the curriculum. Local and statewide guest speakers for last year’s session included professionals from Pioneer, a DuPont company; USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service; the World Food Prize; ISU’s Neely-Kinyon Research Farm, Iowa Department of Human Services; Southwest Iowa Egg Co-op; Adair County Home Care; Creston Farmers Market; and Picket Fence Creamery.

Feedback from the first class of students indicates the program helped develop leadership and problem-solving skills, and increased their knowledge base for potential careers in agriculture, food science, health and wellness, social services, environmental studies, and other areas. The program’s development and pilot effort were funded, in part, by a grant from the Wallace Global Fund.

Apply for 2012 sessions

The Wallace Centers of Iowa will offer two separate sessions during summer 2012: June 15-23 and July 6-14. Cost for each participant is $500, which includes all meals, snacks, field trips, materials, a T-shirt and other supplies.

A reduced rate is available through a scholarship process. Supervised double-occupancy lodging at Hotel Greenfield is available for an additional $400 per person. Most of the program’s activities will take place at WCI’s Country Life Center, the birthplace farm of Henry A. Wallace, near the town of Orient.

A short application process will determine the participants. The selection process looks for potential leaders, problem-solvers and those interested in directing positive outcomes. Students living in urban and suburban areas are especially encouraged to apply.

For an application, due May 1, see
. For more information, contact Weiland at 641-337-5019 or

Taylor is vice president of marketing and resource development for The Wallace Centers of Iowa.


HANDS-ON: The teens spent part of each day tending to The Wallace Centers of Iowa’s 3-acre production garden. Weeding green beans are (from left) Brittany Firch of Fontanelle, Lexi Brennan of West Des Moines and Emily Huntington of Orient.


SKILL BUILDING: After learning about the importance of food safety, participants wrote and recorded their own public service announcements. Max Wallace records the presentation by Ben Mullin of Creston and Tyler Ford of Fontanelle.

This article published in the February, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.

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