Peter Vang - Youth Farm

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It’s November, and most gardens in the northland are slowing down and shutting down.   Frost has shriveled the tender plants.  Gardeners are putting away their tools, ready to straighten up, breathe, and rest until spring.

For Peter Vang, slowing down sounds good, but it is a pace unfamiliar to the young leader.  He has the big picture in mind, and a process that takes planning, preparation, adaptation, and hustle – year round.  If there is time left (and he makes sure there is) then there is time to celebrate.

It’s a pace that suits him.  “I love the chaos and the drama of the kitchen,” Peter exclaims as he describes his early experience in the culinary world.  Now that he’s achieved some professional success in the kitchen, Peter has pivoted, and examines the impact of food on place, personality, and potential. 

Peter is a Farm Steward for Youth Farm, an organization that “Grows Food, Grows Community, and Grows Leaders.”  As an emerging leader himself (Farm Stewards are between 19-24 years of age), Peter is a sort of hinge, a connector between curiosity and opportunity.  And he’s the right age to resonate with kids. “He knows what he’s talking about,” one Youth Farm pre-teen concedes.  “He’s not just an old dude telling us what to do.”

At Youth Farm, programming reaches kids in neighborhoods across the Twin Cities:  Lyndale, Powderhorn, and Hawthorne in Minneapolis, Frogtown and the West Side in St. Paul.  In classrooms, gardens, kitchens, and around communal tables, kids learn where food comes from, how to prepare it, how to share it, and how it shapes society. 

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Experimentation is part of the program, in equal parts allowance and redemption.  “Screwing up is part of it,” Peter says.  “’What you made is too rich, too creamy?’  I tell them ‘Add pickled onions.’  Then they taste.  ‘See how the salt balances the rich and the acid lightens it?’  Their young brains might not get it right away, but their taste buds do.” 

Peter’s own high school years were spent in his family’s restaurant, Amanda’s Deli, He eventually earned a culinary arts degree.  After cooking in fast food joints, hotels, catering, and in some of St. Paul’s best-known restaurants, Peter decided to give Youth Farm a try.  “As a kid of color, I know that many kids don’t have the opportunities that I’ve had.”   

During the summer months, Peter oversees 15 kids, out of about 700 who participate in Youth Farm annually.  During the school year, Peter and his cohort of leaders oversee kids learning cooking, nutrition, and community organizing.  “Youth Farm serves families from a range:  those who have, and those who have not.  Once they are in the kitchen or in the garden, the differences dissolve.  We are all ‘hands in the dirt, hands touching food.’” 

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“My first year as a farm steward,” Peter remembers, “There were kids who had never gardened.  They mostly wanted to cook, but we got them in the garden first.  We spent a lot of time explaining why we need to water and weed.” 

Youth Farm sites their services where land is available for growing and there are kitchens near by for cooking.  Peter’s program is on the grounds of La Puerta Abierta United Methodist Church, in West St. Paul.  “The kitchen is just a few yards from the garden,” Peter enthuses, recognizing the significance the translation “Open Door” takes on for his budding gardeners and chefs.  “It allows us one hour in the garden, one hour in the kitchen.  Easy.”    

At first, some of the kids balked at the hard physical work of gardening, Peter noticed, but he kept them moving.  “When we finally picked the tomatoes after they had turned red.  We ate them there, in the garden.  The kids said ‘Did we really just do that?’  ‘Yes’ I told them, ‘Seedlings, transplants, thinning, weeding.  You did all that.  Taking care of a garden is like taking care of a pet, or your little sister!’”

Peter’s pretty good with language kids understand.  One question he asks them is “Are you Santa Claus or Rudolph?  Are you in the back pointing, or are you like Rudolph, leading the way?”

Once the summer months have turned to fall, Peter returns to the kitchen to focus his teaching on kitchen skills, a real vocational possibility for the Youth Farm kids.  That’s where his chef skills really shine.  “We don’t want them to cut off their fingers,” Peter insists, but we want them to learn good technique and protocol.  “Cutting and the kitchen,” he says, “you will eventually cut yourself.  For that we practice: ‘Knives down, hands up!’” he demonstrates. 

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“Knives are important, and staff will take care of your injury,” he says.  “But we follow rules.  We shout, ‘Sharp knife behind you’ when moving about the kitchen to another station, or ‘Hot pan!’”  He teaches the kids to lay the knife blade away from them so he knows they are done with a task.  “We teach them to clean the knives, to lay them flat and keep them clean for the next cook.”

The food the kids prepare is often unfamiliar, like growing vegetables they have never eaten.  Take roasted potatoes.  That’s something most kids have seen, but Peter adds a simple twist.  “I have them roast them with turmeric,” Peter adds. The color surprises them, but they like it!”  Same goes for eggplant, or jalapenos, or crafting a vegan rice bowl, layering rice, fresh veggies, greens, and spicy sauce all together.  One try, and often they are excited to try even more new things.  On salad days?  “Everything comes from the garden we’ve grown.” 

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He lets the kids create class menus.  He uses a white board at the front of the kitchen.  “Give me some foods you eat or like at home,” he instructs.  “Italian?  Hmong?  Ethiopian?  Spaghetti?  Stir fry?”  He writes the kids’ favorites on the board and invites them to look up recipes and help him plan the menu they will cook together.  “It’s Youth Farm,” he announces, “Not Peter’s Farm!”

In the process, the kids learn about food and how it reflects society.  He asks the kids what kind of food superstar basketball player LeBron James eats.  “He eats good food,” Peter insists, “Not Cheetos!” 

“I want to plant a seed for food health and consciousness,” he says. “As a person of color living in the city, I challenge the teens, ‘Do you know the difference of us eating in the city versus kids in the suburbs?  There are organic grocery stores and better, fresher produce in the suburbs.  The junk food is in the city!  That’s why Youth Farm is here.’” 

Not every day is a win.  Technology is especially challenging, as the kids want to text and Snap Chat and Instagram all day long.  It’s hard to text and thin beet plants at the same time, he argues, so they have a ‘No phones in the garden’ policy.  “We want you to communicate with others face to face,” Peter tells the kids.  “I’ll take your picture for Snap Chat.  Let’s all pose, then post one picture.”  Then, Peter says, they become part of a larger conversation on social media, yet their daily connections feel real. 

At Youth Farm, the kids learn bold strokes in the kitchen, and they learn to take tender, careful steps together in the garden.  “We cook together, we sit together after the work is done,” Peter says.  “We build community where everybody feels like family, we feel safe, we keep food on the table.”

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For more information

Photo credits:  Tracy Nordstrom and Youth Farm website