BENNINGTON - Kayla Vosburgh said she "pretty much didn't know a tomato from an eggplant" when she signed up for The Tutorial Center's Youth Agriculture Project.
But having completed an eight-week session in the spring in which students age 16 to 20 tilled and planted a vegetable garden behind Mount Anthony Union Middle School, and now in an eight-week summer session in which the crops are being harvested and sold, Vosburgh can do a lot more than tell the difference between the most common vegetables.
"Now I know everything that's here," the 18-year-old said from a picnic table next to the garden, as she glanced over at approximately two dozen vegetable varieties growing in front of her.
Her knowledge about vegetables is just a piece of what she has already taken away from the program.
"It also taught me to eat healthier too. I eat a lot more vegetables now," she said.
Participants are paid with funds from the Department of Labor and a University of Vermont grant for 20 hours of work each week. In addition to earning a paycheck, Vosburgh has learned the importance of a healthy diet, sanitation, how to prepare meals, as well as skills obtained through selling the produce at a weekly farmers' market.
While all of that is great, what may be the most significant thing taken away by Vosburgh and others in the program -- the majority of whom have dropped out of high school and come from underprivileged backgrounds -- may be something more powerful. The program helps others who are less fortunate, and participants said that experience has rubbed off on them.
Excess produce in the garden the youth oversee is donated to Meals on Wheels in Bennington, and the group also sells from 20 to 30 pounds of vegetables to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center every week from late June through September.
"It's helped us with relationships within the community as well. People donate things to us and we donate to other organizations. It's kind of nice to actually give things to people," Vosburgh said.
"It kind of restores your faith in humanity," Patrick Matula, 20, added.
The program maintains a Website which it updates each week to list an inventory of available produce. Laura LaCroix, executive chef at the hospital, said she browses through it every week to determine what she will order. The hospital then adjusts its menu based on the produce available.
The collaboration with the hospital began last year when it got weekly crates of kale from the garden. This year, the hospital is receiving a bit of everything grown in the garden, and by next summer LaCroix's goal is to get 50 percent of the hospital's produce from the program during the summer months, which would invest $10,000 to $15,000 in the program.
To show their appreciation, LaCroix and three hospital chefs visited the program Wednesday with prepared lunches that included paninis made with tomato and basil grown in the garden.
In addition to LaCroix, the other cooks visiting the garden Wednesday said the best thing about the program for the hospital is the quality of the produce they receive. Each chef said patients frequently comment on how good the food is when they are able to include local products.
In addition to the farmers' market and hospital, program Director Katherine Keys said food is also sold to Wild Oats Co-op in Williamstown, Mass.
The participants in the program are also able to bring food they grow home with them, which is an important part of the program for many.
"Our demographic is a lot of teens that don't have a place to live right now. They're house-surfing, they're living in tents, so at the end of a workday if they're hungry they'll pull a potato plant and bring home potatoes so they have potatoes to eat," said Jeannie Gilson, who also helps run the program.
Now equipped with the know how to grow produce, Vosburgh said she plans to have a garden of her own in the future. "Why buy it if you can grow it and it's healthier for you to grow it yourself?"
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi