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Q&A: Jake Seltman of Grow Pittsburgh on growing kid-size urban gardeners

Christopher Keough
April27/ 2017

Jake Seltman, who took over as executive director of Grow Pittsburgh in January, grew up in Point Breeze, where Frick Park sparked his interest in the outdoors and experiential environmental education.

While working at Farm & Wilderness, a summer camp for youth, he learned the joys of growing and sharing food. When he left to go to college in Washington state, he didn’t expect to return to Pittsburgh. But after traveling the country and abroad, he came back to contribute to the community and raise a family.

Seltman, 35, lives in Park Place with his wife, Cortney, two sons, 6 and 3, and two chickens.

How is the new job going?

Some days I feel like I’ve been doing it forever and other days are still presenting me with challenges and opportunities.

Tell us a little about Grow Pittsburgh.

Our mission is to teach people how to grow food and promote the benefits that gardens bring to our neighborhoods. We really believe that food grown in gardens helps to support and maintain healthy communities in Pittsburgh.

Jake Seltman works with students. He says kids are his greatest marketing tool. Photo courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh

How do you interact with the community?

We serve as a resource for backyard gardeners, weekend gardeners, school gardeners and urban farmers. We have a schoolyard program for the youngest. We’re accepting new schools into that program. We have a high school internship program, as well as an adult apprenticeship program that takes place on our production sites – our larger gardens in Braddock and Point Breeze – where folks can get paid to learn about growing food.

We also have a community garden program where we work with communities to learn about how to grow food, as well as finding resources and setting up gardens. The backyard gardeners take advantage of our workshop series throughout the growing season. We also have a garden resource center, which is a school lending library, as well as a resource depot where users come and can get access to larger tillers, cover crops, compost.

It’s 2017 and food is available down the street and on the internet. Why is this homegrown stuff important?

Well, that’s a good question. Food really connects us. We’re digitally connected but often disconnected from real things. Through gardening, we’re connected to the land, our own health, to our neighbors, to our history. The benefits are numerous. We talk often about the health benefits. We’re eating healthy food, and we’re being physically active outside.

We’re finding gardening to have therapeutic benefits. There’s this idea of biophilia, that we’re happier when we’re outside and taking care of a plant, watching it grow, harvesting it and preparing a meal. That can’t be replaced by something you can click on the phone.

How do you market those ideas?

Children are often the best spokespeople for us. I can tell somebody that it’s good to be a backyard gardener, but we’re working with thousands of students at schools across the region. When they go home and say, “I just worked with Grow Pittsburgh and one of their farmers, and we grew tomatoes and we got to eat the tomatoes” or “Can we grow peas in the backyard?” That’s the most effective.

Kids, my own kids included, who wouldn’t even touch a salad have such great enthusiasm when they’ve been involved in growing it. If kids grow kale, then kids will eat kale. That quote is from Ron Finley, who’s an urban farmer out in Los Angeles. I see that coming to fruition daily, and it helps inspire our work daily.

Is it important, then, to get kids started early?

I think all ages are able to connect to it, but there’s a sense of wonder for the natural world that we see in kids. In the high school program, those kids are more interested in the bigger picture, sustainable food systems and equitable development and how food deserts affect our society, as well as the business side. So, they’re interested in selling the food at food stands or creating a value-added product and creating a business plan around that. There are different ways to engage different age groups.

Is there an age group you like working with most?

No, our programs start in pre-K and run all the way through high school. We really try to develop the program so someone can enter in kindergarten level and have age-appropriate programming so they become a high school intern, then an apprenticeship and then start their own food-growing project or work here at Grow Pittsburgh.

Do you have specific program goals for the year?

Our vision is that everybody in our community has access to chemical-free, local, culturally appropriate food. This year we’re establishing a more official school and community garden network. So, finding opportunities for everybody to connect and share best practices and get resources. We’re working to be a convener beyond our traditional programs.

If you could wake up tomorrow and it’s 10 years into your leadership at Grow Pittsburgh, what does it look like?

There are food-growing programs in communities around the city and region and they are all really connected so there’s a garden at every school that is helping form community gardens. There are urban farms developed in different ways in different communities to help feed our people. Urban agriculture has become a valued asset.

Christopher Keough

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