This fall, NCAT’s Growing Leaders Youth Initiative put on youth summits across the state to reach high school youth and faculty to engage them in conversations about growing resilient, community-based food systems. From Kalispell to Billings, students gathered and discussed topics such as food insecurity, school food, and effective project development and community engagement. One teacher from Billings commented, “I heard PHENOMENAL things about the summit in Billings!  The students who attended from Senior were super impressed with the entire event and are planning to host a school-wide Lunch-and-Learn highlighting things they learned from the summit later this semester!  Way to go!”

Read on to learn more about the Growing Leaders event in Billings and how you can get involved with Growing Leaders in your community.

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The Growing Leaders Youth Initiatives (GLYI) is a project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) that was developed to build high school students’ leadership and ability to educate and organize their peers and communities to support healthy, local food systems through summits, trainings, project support, and grant opportunities. Based on feedback from a successful statewide youth summit in 2013, organizers decided to put on smaller regional summits this year in order to reach more students, as well as have a chance to focus on topics that relate to particular communities and areas of the state.

One of those regional summits was held in Billings on October 5. NCAT intern Demetrius Fassas, who coordinated the regional summits, worked with diverse community partners to plan the event. Representatives from the Northern Plains Resources Council, Riverstone Health, and Billings Parks and Recreation helped create the agenda and recommend speakers, workshop facilitators, and tour sites. Nineteen youth and two teachers attended the day-long summit, which kicked off with a keynote address from School Wellness Coach Ginny Mermel. Mermel set the tone for the day, discussing the importance of school food when addressing issues of food insecurity in Billings. Following the keynote was a session led by the National Coalition Building Institute with a focus on empowering youth voice, or “how to get over labels and get to work,” which was very well received. Other workshops covered topics such as Farm to School, project development and community engagement, and an address from a Billings Senior High student who had traveled to Thailand to study cultural food systems and food insecurity.

Students participated in food-related tours during the afternoon, where they learned about CSAs at Kate’s Garden, a local farm in the Billings area; saw firsthand how school gardens can be effectively integrated into a school’s culture at the Billings Head Start, and observed efforts to decrease food waste through redistribution of food from grocery stores at Family Services. The day concluded with a chili dinner provided by the Good Earth Market.

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Observations from the students included surprise at the amount of food wasted and encouragement from the success of a small-scale farm and the number of organizations focused on food in Billings. One student stated the highlight of the day was “learning that we can actually do things to help stop hunger and help other people.” The students also came up with ideas for community projects such as forming a sustainability club, talking to administration about a garden program, and working on environmental awareness and preventive health-care education. Organizers of the event will be following up with teachers and students to see what support Growing Leaders can offer to help students achieve these goals.

If you are interested, there is one more Growing Leaders event, which will be held November 16 at Chico Hot Springs near Livingston. Check out the agenda and contact if you think you would like to join. Expect to hear from Patti Armbrister, a passionate Ag educator from Hinsdale, MT, whose focus is on Farm to School and integrating outdoor classrooms into school curriculum. Teachers in attendance will receive OPI renewal credits. You can also reach out to Demetrius for more general information on Growing Leaders and how you can engage high school youth in food projects in your community.