These 17-year-olds “didn’t really know how to garden.” Now they’ve got their first harvest in a City Park West shipping container.

If nothing else, Metro Caring’s urban farming interns learned to delegate.
4 min. read
Wilber Portillo, left, and fellow Metro Caring urban farming intern Abraham Rodriguez. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

If nothing else, Metro Caring's urban farming interns learned to delegate.

Wilber Portillo and Abraham Rodriguez showed guests, among them the anti-hunger nonprofit's CEO Teva Sienicki, how to harvest the lettuce they've been growing for the last five weeks in a high-tech, hydroponic farm set up in a shipping container on a City Park West parking lot. Then the two 17-year-olds left their visitors to finish picking the greens.

"It's been a crazy, cool adventure," Metro Caring chief gardener Jess Harper said of the pilot project. "We're looking forward to many more harvest days."

SCL Health Saint Joseph donated the parking spaces across from its main entrance and near Metro Caring's headquarters for the 40-foot container. Saint Joseph also is paying the utility bills. The Morgridge Family Foundation donated the container equipped with a nutrient-feeding drip system, climate controls and LED lights.

Harper described her mentoring strategy as explaining what they needed to do and leaving the teens to do it. Their resulting confidence and sense of ownership was clear on the project's first harvest day on Monday.

The lessons included coping with setbacks. When they noticed some of the plants were not thriving, Portillo said they didn't waste time being disappointed but started checking the pumps and other equipment and trying to determine whether their nutrition mix was correct.

"We had to make sure we were doing it in time for the harvest," Portillo said.

Metro Caring urban farming intern Wilber Portillo. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

What turned out to be a nutrition issue and a few technical glitches were overcome. Nearly 2,000 lettuce plants were ready for their guests to pick Monday.

"We didn't really know how to garden. But look at this," Rodriguez said, showing off lettuces on a growing tower.

He added that he liked  "trying to figure things out."

Portillo pointed to just a few stunted bunches among other thriving plants.

"You can see these little plants right here that didn't make it. Sad,"  Portillo said.

Half the harvest will go to Metro Caring for distribution to the needy. The teens' plans for the remainder include preparing a salad to feed their peers at an annual presentation by Denver Public School students who took part in work readiness programs this summer.

Metro Caring urban farming intern Abraham Rodriguez. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Portillo and Rodriguez, who both are considering health careers, got a chance to shadow a Saint Joseph dietitian, who in turn toured their container.  The interest that Saint Joseph staff showed in their project got them thinking about how it could bring together their classmates for conversations about fighting hunger and poor nutrition. Portillo has already spoken to his principal about getting a container farm for CEC.

Metro Caring also sponsors 50 garden plots around Denver. The hydroponic garden extends both the nonprofit's growing season and its opportunity to talk about the educational and entrepreneurial opportunities food presents.

Metro Caring, which distributed more than 2 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2018, has a free and extensive fresh food market at its headquarters. While not in one,  the organization is based near neighborhoods that are considered food deserts. Metro Caring's programs include job training, advocacy on economic issues and navigators to connect people to utility assistance and other support services.

With a week of their internship to go, Portillo and Rodriguez were experimenting beyond lettuce. They'll have to leave it to other volunteers to nurture their cilantro. They suggested watermelon, and still think they could make it work.

Their enthusiasm and willingness to try new things were "the best part of having them around," said Harper. She was also charmed that the interns commuted to work from north Denver via long boards and bus.

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