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Instilling Knowledge: Robert Pierce on Local Food Education and Youth in South Madison

The Institute was pleased to welcome its new Assistant Policy Program Director, George Reistad, who began his new job in August 2013.  As part of his orientation to the diverse world of leaders and innovators in Sustainable Agriculture,  George is interviewing people with whom we work, representing many different facets of sustainable agriculture in Wisconsin and the nation.  This article is the first in a series he is calling, “Sustainable Agriculture Profiles from My Learning Journey.”

August 29th, 2013

Robert Pierce having a laugh after a long day's work

Robert Pierce having a laugh after a long day’s work

It’s a hot Thursday morning in South Madison. The sun is beaming down on the array of vegetables planted in Robert Pierce’s garden at the Growing Power Madison offices; Burgundy Okra, Kohlrabi, various assortments of peppers hot and sweet alike — the list goes on and on. The offices are housed in the Resilient Research Center, an initiative spearheaded by the Center for Resilient Cities. The research center convenes the Resilience Neighborhood Center, Badger Rock Middle School, and Growing Power. There are two gardens planted on-site. One is tended to by Robert and his daughter Shellie Pierce as well as the volunteers that drift in to water, plant, compost and harvest under Robert’s direction. The other is the student garden, planted and maintained by Badger Rock Middle School’s own student body.

This experiential learning component of the garden is part of the larger mission of Badger Rock, a public charter school that falls under the umbrella of the Madison Metropolitan School District. It’s a unique school, with a mission to foster environmental and cultural sustainability. Intentionally held to a small size (there are around 100 students enrolled), the school offers students a chance to interact with their built and natural environments as well as to work together regularly on different tasks. A neighborhood school by design, most of the students come from the area south of Sennet Middle School on Pflaum Rd. This allows students the opportunity to learn and grow in the community they live in.

This community-based education, especially on the topics of healthy and local food, is a top priority for Robert Pierce.


Realization of a Passion

Robert, himself a native of South Madison, began his career in the early 1980’s, when as a business student at Madison Business College he decided he wanted to pursue organic farming.

“It started off as something for myself [with] health benefits because of the allergies I had contracted after Vietnam. I was also at a business college at the time too. And I decided at that point that I wanted to become an organic farmer. That was in 1984.”

He reminisces about his early days of leasing land from a man for whom he built the soil up. Robert had the option to buy, but the land was sold to the DNR for a healthy profit to the landowner.

“[The DNR] gave him more money than I could ever pay him. He knew that too. But in reality I enjoyed what I was doing and it was a good thing. So in doing that it was like OK, I can [farm].”

That experience, although not ideal, solidified Robert’s confidence in his abilities and allowed him to continue with his passion for farming. Nearly 30 years later he’s still at it and is using his experience to educate the next generation about local foods, growing one’s own food, and providing the educational tools to instill a Locavorian mindset in this community he cares so much about.


Educating our Youth on the Origins of Their Food

Practical and classroom learning

Robert works with students up to four hours a day. The structure of this instruction is distinctly different than that of most schools.

“They come down [to the garden], and they work with me. This year it’s two hours in the morning, then they break, go have their lunch and it’s two hours of classroom [time] with me and my daughter Shellie.”

With the school still in its infancy, new and innovative programming is being actively explored by teachers and administrators. A potential mentorship program between urban agriculture pioneers like Robert and the students is a tangible possibility.

“Right now they’re starting to find ways of having these kids be mentored by myself or somebody in [the urban agriculture field].”

When asked if students are affected by what they have been learning, in terms of food consumption choices, he smiles and tells me the story of a young woman, who after watching Food Inc. and other food systems documentaries in his class, refused to eat turkey for Thanksgiving, citing the inhumane treatment of the birds prior to processing.

“Yea, I think we’ve done our part in helping kids see some of the things that are happening with their food. And as they work out in these gardens, they get the chance to put stuff in, taste, and try things”.


The Socio-Economics of Food Decisions

There are many factors that deter people from making conscious and healthy food decisions on a daily basis. Although every family situation is unique regardless of race, Robert says there needs to be a push to educate youth about alternatives to fast food and other unhealthy, processed foods.

I ask Robert what he thinks is the main reason people, and kids especially, may not consider or even have knowledge of healthy and local food options.

“I’ll be really explicit with you right now. I see White kids and their parents tell them how important it is to eat right. I see African-American kids still running around eating their McDonald’s and doing the fast foods and not really caring about what they’re eating. Their parents have the argument that ‘I give them $5 apiece and say go over and order off the value menu and they’re full’.”

This argument, he says, stems from a lack of time to buy and prepare meals and from financial restrictions.

“I’ll tell you why there’s this dichotomy. That woman might be working two jobs and if there is a father at the house, he might be working two jobs [as well]. The parents have to work to death off of minimum wage to supply and support them. That’s why. Because there’s no one cooking in the family.”


PEAT Program

The Program for Entrepreneurial Agricultural Training (PEAT) is an initiative created by Robert to teach today’s youth how to become their own employer and grow and cook healthier food for the Madison community.

It strives to instill more knowledge in Madison youth about what they are doing and what they are eating on a holistic level. The program doesn’t try to lump participants solely into the producer or sales category. It gives them a sampling of each to allow them to determine their interest area.

“[The Program] is not just about growing food. Maybe that’s not what the kids want to do; maybe they want to just sell food. We usually teach them how to grow food, and we have them sell it at the farmer’s market. They then also have to take a certain amount [of that food] and give it to pantries. We want them to be able to see where that food is going and see who is getting it.”


Why it Matters

This full-scale approach to practical and classroom education on urban agriculture and food systems is vital to helping our youth understand where their food comes from and why it matters. It enables them to make decisions that may not be immediately apparent or relevant if this curriculum didn’t exist. With all the existing barriers to youth understanding or even caring about making responsible food decisions in their lives, the partnership forged between these organizations and the continual work of food pioneers like Robert Pierce makes a world of difference.

To learn more about Robert Pierce and Growing Power-Madison, the Resilience Research Center, Badger Rock Middle School, and the PEAT Program, check out these resources:

Robert Pierce

Growing Power – Madison: https://www.facebook.com/GrowingPowerMadison

South Side Farmer’s Market: http://southmadisonfarmersmarket.com/The-Market.html

Resilience Research Center


Badger Rock Middle School


Program for Entrepreneurial Agricultural Training (PEAT)