“Roots Rising showed me that there are people in this world who care about what’s going on and about me. This is the first group I’ve been in where I matter to people.”—Dakkare, Roots Rising Farm Crew alum
A growing crisis among Berkshire youth—health, safety, and food security
In June 2022, the U.S. Surgeon General (Dr. Vivek H. Murthy) wrote: “As a parent and as a physician, I am deeply concerned that some of the challenges and obstacles that this generation of young people faces—the ubiquity of technology platforms, loneliness, economic inequality, and progress on issues such as racial injustice and climate change—are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. The impact that these challenges are having on their mental health—their emotional, psychological, and social well-being—is devastating.”
According to the Berkshire Health Systems Community Health Needs Assessment of 2022 (based on interviews with youth mental health providers and youth development professionals across western Massachusetts), mental health among area youth has been worsening for years. COVID-19 was not only a catalyst for more adverse outcomes, such as higher rates of anxiety and suicidality, but also prevented many programs that support young people from operating at their full capacity.
In his report, Dr. Murthy emphasizes that it is especially important to protect the mental health of historically underrepresented youth—groups that, due to factors beyond their control, are at a higher risk for mental health difficulties as well as gang violence and drug addiction. The mounting stress of growing up in an urban center within a rural region that often addresses the needs of visitors more effectively than those of residents has myriad consequences. However, research has shown that youth who have opportunities to work toward a better future can go on to lead healthy and productive lives.
One program that has improved youth mental health and had a growing impact post-pandemic is Roots Rising—an award-winning nonprofit organization whose mission is empowering youth and building community through food and farming.
As Executive Director and Co-Founder Jessica Vecchia states, “Our vision is to lift up teens as community changemakers and to strengthen the local food system through the transformational power of meaningful work.”
Origins and evolution
“I was the director of Alchemy Initiative when we started the farmers’ market in 2013,” Vecchia explains. “We hired teens from Pittsfield Community Connection to work with us, and they were excited to work at the market and on a community project. Unfortunately, we were only able to provide a limited number of hours.”
Vecchia says she wanted to provide more robust employment opportunities for youth and better address community and vendor needs. “I met Jamie Samowitz at Berkshire Botanical Gardens, who ran an afterschool program and also saw the need for greater involvement but was losing youth to work at places where they could earn a paycheck,” she continues. “We gave them a free booth at the farmers’ market, where they made and sold smoothies.” That success inspired further growth.
Serendipity had struck. The two shared a similar vision and together studied the operations at The Food Project (in Boston)—a nationally recognized non-profit organization that (per its website) “works at the intersection of youth, food, and community.” When they completed their studies, they “adapted what we learned for our community and developed a collaborative project,” Vecchia explains.
In the summer of 2017, they launched their first Youth Crew through a crowd-funding campaign. “Our goal was to raise $10,000, but we raised over $30,000 within a few weeks—mostly through small donations—and incredible community support. We realized there was so much more potential and merged Alchemy Initiative into Roots Rising.”
Two powerful initiatives, with plans for one more
Since then, Roots Rising’s two main initiatives—Youth Crews and Pittsfield Farmers’ Market—have been the focus. In 2019, Roots Rising held its first youth-run farmers’ market and became its own 501(c)(3). The nonprofit organization exclusively hires teenagers who are residents of Pittsfield, a city with a considerable need for meaningful youth employment opportunities. They intentionally located the farmers’ market within walking distance of the Morningside neighborhood, one of Pittsfield’s most vulnerable and underserved communities.
“Our Youth Crews hire Pittsfield teens to work on farms and in food pantries throughout the region, as well as at our own farmers’ market. It’s not just a job. It’s an opportunity for teens to engage in meaningful work—work that needs to be done and that contributes to a larger social good. Roots Rising believes that meaningful work is transformational. It leaves youth feeling purposeful, capable, and connected,” Vecchia affirms.
Roots Rising runs three seasonal Farm Crews each year—in spring, summer, and fall—along with a Market Crew (for Farm Crew graduates). Both crews go beyond employment and engage members in youth development programs. In addition to working in the farm fields or farmers’ markets, members also participate in educational workshops, culinary and financial literacy lessons, and feedback circles.
According to Vecchia, the recent Youth Crews’ demographics “are typical for the youth we hire: 100 percent Pittsfield residents, 57 percent racial/ethnic minorities, 80 percent low-income, 54 percent having parents/guardians whose educational attainment was an associate’s degree or below, and 10 percent immigrants.” In 2022, the number of Crew members from low-income households increased by 19 percent. “We work primarily, but not exclusively, with youth in high-risk environments,” Vecchia notes.
“Our aim is not to train a cohort of farmers,” she says, “but we use farming as a platform to teach workforce training and life skills. Our goal is to empower young people to reach whatever dreams they have for themselves.”
Roots Rising has just finished its 11th outdoor season—the summer market is held every week from May to October, and the winter indoor market once a month from November to April. “It’s an amazing thing to watch an empty space transform into live community,” she shares.
As Vecchia explains, “We founded the Pittsfield Farmers’ Market—a year-round and producer-only market (with all of our vendors selling products that they grow, raise, or produce themselves) in 2013 with the belief that everyone in our community should have access to fresh, healthy food.” Live music, chef demos, and workshops have helped make the market a true community hub. “The Pittsfield Farmers’ Market is the first teen-run market in the region,” she points out. “The Market Crew is involved with every aspect of running the market, from vendor support to customer service to children’s activities.”
Roots Rising also runs several food justice initiatives to make their market more affordable to all—including Market Match (which doubles the purchasing power of low-income residents using SNAP, WIC, and Senior benefits) and the Healthy Incentives Program (which provides SNAP and EBT recipients access to $40 to $80 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables at farm stands and markets). According to Berkshire Benchmarks, 8.4 percent of Pittsfield families reportedly lived below the poverty line in 2021, compared to 6.6 percent statewide. That reality indicates an even greater need for fresh, nutritious food combined with meaningful employment programs.
“[Our programs] increase access to nutritious farm food and ensure that 100 percent of the dollars go back into local farmers’ pockets,” Vecchia says. In 2022, Roots Rising provided 415 free breakfasts and lunches through the Summer Eats program and donated 2,500 pounds of food through Giving Table. The initiatives have many other benefits for city residents, including providing education and direct connection to the folks who grow their food. The markets are also a valuable testing ground for vendors and an incubator for many new businesses, including youth entrepreneurs.
A third initiative designed to provide a lasting home
Erin Kaplan, who holds a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University, joined Roots Rising this past spring. “I’ve always worked with youth development programs and had a personal passion for being involved with food,” she shares. When she saw the development director (a new position) job posting on Idealist, she thought, “How is this possible? It perfectly fits what I love.”
In this role, Kaplan is actively working on the organization’s next initiative: A Roots Rising Youth Farm! “We’re currently engaged in a land search for a youth farm that will become our home base (we’ve been a pop-up since we started),” Kaplan explains, adding, “We want to make a material investment in Pittsfield and are looking for several acres with room to grow.” (FYI: They welcome any and all ideas.)
“Our Youth Farm will be an intersection of our youth empowerment and food justice work,” Kaplan continues. “More than just a work site for our teens, it will also be a community and food hub, a green oasis in the city, and a headquarters to amplify our legacy of food justice work in the city of Pittsfield.” Behind the scenes, they have been hard at work in the planning stages of the upcoming Youth Farm. To that end, they are shifting from internal strategizing and deep visioning with their crews to inviting the general public into the discussion. “We are committed to having this Youth Farm be co-created alongside the community and developed in partnership with the incredible youth that we serve,” she explains.
Roots Rising envisions this “teen-powered, community-centered farm” as a training ground for the next generation of food-system and community changemakers. “And we aim for the farm to be a source of resilience, inspiration, and pride, both for the city of Pittsfield and beyond,” Vecchia adds.
Going beyond farming and training by serving the wider community
Writing in the recent annual report, Vecchia says that 2022 was “a year of RESPONSIVENESS” for Roots Rising. With a nationwide labor shortage continuing to create real hardship for local farmers, its Youth Crews were needed more than ever. “Having a team of 12 intrepid teens pull up to a farm, roll up their sleeves, and get to work was an invaluable resource for our local food system. What’s more, our Roots Rising alumni were hired onto local farms to meet the demand for skilled and enthusiastic agricultural workers,” she states.
In the face of skyrocketing food prices and runaway inflation, the organization expanded its food justice programs to put more nutritious food in the bags of shoppers and more money in the hands of hard-working farmers. “In 2022, our Market Match program doubled the purchasing power of hundreds of market shoppers, and put more than $28,000 worth of locally grown food onto the tables of families in need,” Kaplan says.
True to its core mission, the organization changed the lives of its 146 youth participants. Here are just a few of the many inspiring quotes culled from program evaluation forms:
“Roots Rising allowed me to connect with the community, learn how food is grown, and gain a stronger work ethic. On the first day, I had no clue that I would make such great friends and gain such great mentors.”—Autumn, Farm Crew
“Roots Rising gave me a different outlook on life. In my Crew, I learned how much work goes into caring for the living world around us.”—Haven, Farm Crew
“On my first day of Summer Farm Crew, I was given the job of ‘motivator.’ I exploded into this role, feeling genuinely important and seen. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but a leader, a friend, a part of a whole. I wasn’t insecure that my excitement and goofiness were showing. I just let it out. As I continued in Summer, Fall, and especially Market Crew, my confidence continued to blossom. Not only were my ideas listened to, but I was actually asked to bring them—to develop plans and solve problems.”—Yarrow, Farm and Market Crew
The Handmade Holiday Festival returns after a pandemic pause
Vecchia says the Handmade Holiday Festival began as a fundraiser to support their work and bring shoppers and vendors together. “We held our first festival in late November 2009 and continued through 2019 (when COVID shut things down),” Vecchia explains. “This is us really coming back, and we’re so excited. It’s a well-loved event,” she adds.
This year’s festival will be held November 25 (from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and 26 (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) at The Stationery Factory in Dalton (63 Flansburg Avenue). “[It’s] a new weekend for us, between Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, and we think it fits nicely,” Kaplan explains. “There’s a lot of shared excitement for our event to be back, allowing local artisans and food vendors to shine, the community to learn about our work, and all of us to enjoy delicious food, fun (including children’s crafts), and live music in an awesome space.”
The curated holiday market features over 50 local artisans, makers, and food producers. And from November 20 to 27, supporters can bid on local getaways, such as a spa day for two at Canyon Ranch or a week of sleepaway camp at Camp Kimama, and other items valued at over $10,000 at the online auction.
With a suggested donation of $5, the festival is open to anyone, and all proceeds support Roots Rising’s mission. Parking is abundant, free, and fully accessible.
“Buying local is a social and economic investment in the people and places where we live,” Vecchia acknowledges. What better way to support this vital organization, which is investing in Pittsfield youth and the surrounding community of farmers and makers, than to come and shop! For more details, or to purchase tickets for the VIP shopping hour, go to rootsrising.org/handmadeholidayfestival.
Be sure to also visit their indoor markets, happening now through April 2024.