October 04, 2022

Partnership connects urban youth to careers in ag and food innovation

URBANA, Ill. — Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee believes every youth should be given the opportunity to achieve greatness. The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis is a safe learning center where youth are instilled with the dream, drive and determination to succeed in academics, athletics and leadership.

Inspired by Joyner-Kersee’s passion to empower her community, new partners have joined efforts to elevate youth potential. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is providing STEM and ag curriculum with authentic research experiences for K-12 students in genetics, molecular biology and image analytics and offering internships for high school at its innovative research facility in St. Louis.

“We are creating a hands-on STEM education and work force development pipeline from kindergarten to adult that provides opportunities for people to develop marketable skills in urban agriculture, innovation and entrepreneurship while learning about the importance of food production and improving their own communities’ access to nutrition,” said Kristine Callis-Duehl, the Sally and Derick Driemeyer director of education research and outreach at the Danforth Center.

The partnership aligns with outreach efforts launched in 2019 by the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Working through the local U of I Extension office, ACES efforts focus on youth engagement, health and nutrition, and economic expansion through metropolitan food production and community education.

“This collaboration epitomizes what ACES strives for in everything that we do — providing pathways for people and communities to thrive,” College of ACES Dean Kim Kidwell said.

“Working closely with our partners at the JJK Center and Danforth Plant Science Center, this project positions youth in the East St. Louis area for successful career pathways to address economic development and food access issues that too often plague inner cities.

“From planting the first seed to harvesting nutritious food at JJK and experiencing hands-on learning at Danforth Center, we hope this program inspires young people to graduate from college with a degree in plant sciences or a related field and then return home to make a difference in their communities.”

Amy Cope, U of I Extension county director for Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties, said each partner believes in dedicating resources to the underserved families of East St. Louis.

“By joining together the impact is endless,” Cope said. “The collaboration strives to provide community education and hands-on instruction in community-supported agriculture programs by establishing community gardens, vertical farming sites and a commercial test kitchen for food innovation.”

Researchers from the Danforth Center will open new avenues for youth in the areas of agriculture, food, STEM and college and career readiness.

The Danforth Center offers time, expertise, energy and facilities in the partnership as they challenge students to connect the food on their plate to the plants that produce the food they eat. Research at the Danforth Center drives innovation to improve the human condition through better understanding of plant science.

“Research conducted by the student interns will contribute to advancing our scientific research projects,” said Ruth Kaggwa, Danforth Center STEM education and outreach manager. “As high school interns gain new skills, they earn expertise badges, mimicking workforce development practices in real world careers.”

Infrastructure development is required to support the goals of the collaboration, and efforts are well underway, Cope said.

The expanded site will be located at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center and will include additional classrooms, demonstration areas, greenhouses, community gardens and a commercial test kitchen, all which will contribute to experiential learning methodology and community engagement.