Farming An Urban Desert In Houston's East End
“Are you interested in becoming a teacher? Would you like to teach here?” These questions were proposed to us straight out of college during a visit of our high school. Without hesitation, we said, “YES!” While we wondered if we were too young to really make a difference, we knew it “felt right.”
Three years later, it still seems about right! It has been a great honor to teach in the community in which we were raised and still live. In essence, we are returning the knowledge we gained from our teachers to our students like one should return nutrients back to the soil. Throughout this short period of teaching, we have been energized and empowered through our community and students to make a difference. With their passion and dedication, the Houston East End Greenbelt movement germinated, and has now blossomed into fruit.
Together, we developed the goal and mission to bring environmental justice to our community, transforming our concrete jungle and food desert into a food forest. Currently, our community is bombarded with fast food chains and suffers from an epidemic of diabetes and obesity. This just isn’t a statistic to us: it’s a reality. Many of us suffer from these illnesses and have loved ones who live with this struggle. Efforts of the Green Ambassadors create solutions, for a community that is poverty-stricken, and in which most students who attend its local schools are on free or reduced lunch. One hundred percent of the students at The Green Institute at Furr High School are on free lunch, and families lack access to fresh, affordable, organic resources. The problem is food and the solution is food; thus the food forest concept was born. Through education and service-learning, our success is illustrated by the over 100 fruit trees planted and the community gardens established at schools and public spaces. The vision is becoming a tangible reality! The project is entirely youth led, using peer-to-peer learning and driven by collaboration.
The Agriculture Department of The Green Institute at Furr High School, instructed by Juan Elizondo and David Salazar, practice alternative methods of producing food with their students. Students aim to experiment and investigate sustainable practices. This method is known as "straw bale" food production. So far, the harvest has been bountiful! The Green Ambassadors aim to replicate this model at local schools in which they serve in partnership with the Houston East End Greenbelt.
During this process, we have also been able to integrate this movement into the school in which we currently teach: The Green Institute at Furr High School, with full support of principal Dr. Bertie Simmons, who is committed to empowering the next generations of youth leaders and creating solutions. In addition, with partners such as the Friends of the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas - Latino Legacy, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, and Project Learning Tree we have been able to create a green model for green communities and establish a Green Ambassador program, an initiative that is completely driven by at-risk youth.
Green Ambassadors serve their community through mentorship and youth-led activities. Green Ambassadors visit local East End Schools weekly, implementing service-learning programming and green action projects and tending over 100 fruit trees in the East End of Houston, which are planted in public lands and community spaces in partnership with the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation. Most recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the movement and established a native pollinator garden, in which Green Ambassadors serve as stewards.
At the beginning of the program, we had some struggles. The idea was to create and unite a feeder pattern program of green schools that started in early childhood and continued through elementary, middle and high school. We relied heavily on adults to run the program, but many teachers couldn’t commit to the additional hours given on their workload. The solution was the high school youth: they had the energy; they became the experts; and they had the fire to keep the momentum going. Our high school students use a wide range of conservation education curricula from various federal agencies and organizations -- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Nature Explore and Project Learning Tree -- to facilitate after-school programing in schools and community centers in the East End of Houston. That’s not all! Our Green Team members also carry certifications in permaculture design, are members of the Permaculture Guild of Houston and hold certifications in organic gardening, OSHA, and first aid, bringing additional skills to the table.
“None of us…absolutely none of us had the idea of teaching younger students and even students of our age. From being shy to talking to hundreds of people…from not appreciating education…to creating our own curriculum…from close to dropping out of high school…to teaching conservation education to all ages, but like this movement impacted us we wish to leave an impact in the lives of the younger generations to come, the next conservation leaders. It’s our sole mission, we hold each other responsible and accountable to do so. A program that is self-sustained by youth.” --Luis Angel Cruz, Green Ambassador Senior
At the Green Institute at Furr High School, we have Green Ambassadors seniors who are enrolled in Career Technical Education Co-Op programing, the purpose of which is to prepare students for the industry in which they have a passion to pursue after high school. Our Co-Op Green Ambassadors serve as interns for the Friends of the National Forests and Grasslands in the Texas - Latino Legacy. They have a desire to pursue careers in natural resources and earn a small stipend to help further their goals with their education. They attend school half the day, and leave campus to implement conservation education curriculum and conduct environmental investigations and action projects at the local feeder pattern schools. They also create and implement their own STEAM projects connecting: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics...the “A” is also interchanged with Agriculture as growing foods is key in the movement.
“Something that inspired me to be part of the Houston East End Greenbelt movement was the passion of the members to work outside with the land. It inspired me, because I come from a family where they worked the agricultural fields harvesting cotton, beans and corn. To me, the work was really impressive, the intense physical rigor of the occupation and the numerous hours experienced on the fields. I was really happy to witness that many students and people were inspired to grow their own food, plant fruit trees and to work outside with fresh air. When I saw people working outside with love, I knew at that moment I was going to take part of the movement. What keeps me active is knowing the benefits that will come such as better air, better health, better eating habits and better knowledge to share with other people.”
--Cinthia Cantu, Sophomore
Through the students’ passion, the Green Ambassadors have been able to revitalize the Houston East End. When the Green Ambassadors set up at a public event, they haul a small airstream trailer, aka, “bosque mobile,” filled with goodies from the USDA Forest Service National Symbols Cache, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plus numerous educational materials in English and Spanish. The goal is to reach diverse audiences in urban spaces with the message of conservation and environmental education. They set up booths, tables and showcase a creative expo. A few things you will be able to engage at one of their many expeditions are chinchillas, snakes, lizards, chickens, spiders and a hands-on native seed bombing activity to bring back the pollinators. In addition, they are Ambassadors for Woodsy Owl, the national symbol for the promotion of conservation practices, and help Woodsy Owl spread the conservation message to youth in English and Spanish. Wherever they go, so does Woodsy Owl.
With the Friends of the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas - Latino Legacy, we have been able to work with on grassroots efforts for over eight years. Our next phase in our programming is to create a fully supported program from industry and community leaders in natural resources to empower Green Ambassadors. While Green Ambassadors spread their love and dedication for their community, they are also being prepared to be college- and career-ready through training, workshops, certifications and leadership. We are connecting with other schools, and have reclaimed school grounds, started gardens, installed over a hundred fruit trees, and established -- and steward -- the Lockwood Native Pollinator Garden in Houston, Texas, facilitated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Students, community members and partners who contribute to the movement share the common goal of unifying to ensure the future of our youth, families and neighborhoods by planting and maintaining a green corridor of fruit trees, native plant and edible understory that support the food forest concept. Heritage, pride, accountability and responsibility to community are the unifying forces of the movement which will support continued partnership in program growth and sustainability. As Houston grows and the communities within experience rapid development, it is important to engage partners who help to support creative and innovative solutions to the rapid changes and subsequent challenges facing Houston’s East End marginalized communities while conserving, sustaining and empowering people.
As community members and educators, we aim to focus not solely on the destination, but the journey. Learning through the process and progressing one day, one tree, one plant and one seed at a time. Enjoying the time we have with our families and community, embracing and looking at “problems” as solutions. We are both fortunate at our early age to be able to live this opportunity and look forward to many years of dedication and service to our community.
A few Green Ambassadors and Green Team members of the Houston East End Greenbelt visited Washington D.C. in March of 2015 and were able to share their stories and success with the United States Forest Service Executive Leadership Team. With their partnership, many possibilities were able to come to fruition.
Juan Elizondo and David Salazar, Co-Green Ambassador Coordinators and Leaders of the Houston East End Greenbelt Movement and Career and Technical Agricultural Educators at the Green Institute at Furr High School in front of the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C.