A healthy relationship with food can take a while for a person to develop. Cultivating the same relationship for an entire community is even more of a challenge, but one that comes with enormous rewards. For Shawn Peterson, founder and director of The Green Urban Lunch Box – a nonprofit program based in Salt Lake City, Utah – the relationship between people and their food is of the utmost importance.
Peterson first got the idea for The Green Urban Lunch Box when he started thinking about the food-consumer relationship in today’s society. He started wondering where our food comes from, what we’re really eating, and whether people have access to healthy, good-quality food. “The concern was how can we grow our own food, and how can we have better control over what we’re eating?” Thus, the Green Urban Lunch Box was born, and developing healthy personal relationships with food is still at the basis of the program today.
Get with the program
The Green Urban Lunch Box program started small, in a 35-foot school bus converted into a mobile greenhouse. Its mission was to get people excited about urban agriculture and the many benefits of growing their own food. The program expanded when a senior citizen in the community asked for help in turning a large yard into garden space.
Peterson realized his program could fulfill this type of request and more. The Green Urban Lunch Box’s first large-scale program came to fruition, called the Back-Farm Program.
The Back-Farm Program pairs college students and other beginner gardeners with senior citizens in the community who want to turn their yard space into a food garden. Together, and with the program’s staff, the pair learns sustainable gardening methods while growing fruits and vegetables.
A weekly training program helps teach the teams how to grow fresh produce, which is then divided between the homeowner and program volunteers, and the rest is donated to a hunger-relief program.
The program donates to multiple relief programs, including Meals on Wheels, Salt Lake Community Action Program, Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, Bountiful Food Pantry, Catholic Community Services of Utah, and local senior centers.
Back-Farm has various benefits. “The seniors get companionship, everyone gets to give back to the community, the yards are beautified and no longer wastelands, and the hard work results in beautiful productive vegetable gardens,” says Peterson.
Growing more than food
The Green Urban Lunch Box continues to expand, and now boasts several successful programs. Newest to the program lineup is the Small Farm Initiative. For folks wanting to make a living growing good food, the program offers courses that will teach them skills to do that, including aquaponics, high-intensity vegetable production, and even business planning.
The FruitShare program has volunteers harvesting underutilized fruit trees in homeowners’ yards and abandoned orchards. With 1,000 fruit trees in the program and 43,000 pounds of fruit harvested so far this year, these numbers keep growing along with the program’s success.
The program is great for homeowners who need help harvesting their fruit, and those doing the harvesting learn about caring for fruit trees. Staff members lead groups of volunteers to teach them about fruit trees, how to harvest fruit, cooking techniques and recipe ideas, and the volunteers have access to a wide variety of fruits.
Perhaps the most unique of The Green Urban Lunch Box’s programs is the mobile greenhouse. The 35-foot school bus that started the whole venture is still being put to good use. With the top removed and skylights put in, the mobile greenhouse is an experiment in alternative agriculture.
The mobile greenhouse tours around the community to summer camps, farmers’ markets and more. “We get a lot of kids in there,” Peterson says. “We help them understand how food grows and why they should eat it, and we also show adults how they can grow their own foods.” The program has a large base of around 400 volunteers from all walks of life. “We get moms that bring their kids down to pick fruit with them, college kids, seniors, corporate groups, all sorts of people who come out and get more familiar with their food systems,” says Peterson.
The mobile greenhouse provides good food to those in need, while utilizing produce and space that would have gone unused. The greenhouse on wheels also helps educate about a sustainable food system, builds healthy relationships with food, and most importantly, builds connections among members of the community.
One of the most rewarding parts of the program for Peterson is watching the connection created between students and seniors in the Back-Farm program. “They just become such an active part of each other’s lives,” he says. “Over the wintertime, the college kids ask about the seniors, the seniors ask about them, and they become friends, which is a really cool aspect of what we’re doing.”
Something else Peterson enjoys is watching people taste things they’ve never eaten before. Kids and seniors alike discover a new love of healthy foods they didn’t have access to previously.
What does the future hold for The Green Urban Lunch Box? Continued growth and shifting toward an urban farming focus. The program has expanded since its inception, and this will hopefully continue. The FruitShare program alone has doubled in size every year and is projected to yield 150,000 pounds of produce over the next year.
An exciting new addition will be a mobile produce cart. “It’ll be like an ice cream truck with vegetables,” Peterson says. The cart will deliver fresh produce from the gardens to communities around Salt Lake City that don’t have access to fresh food.
“Our program is constantly evolving and changing and becoming better,” says Peterson. “We’re always trying to find more productive ways to give a larger community fresh, locally grown food.” The main goal will continue to be utilizing neglected resources in the community to the best of their ability. “Quality food shouldn’t just be something that rich people can afford,” says Peterson. “It should be something that everyone can have access to.”
Elena Gardner is passionate about sustainability. She lives in Washington state.