Corps Story: Vermont Youth Conservation Corps Food & Farm Program

For the month of October, The Corps Network is highlighting Corps across the country that help expand access to food in their communities. Ezra Pasackow, a former member of Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC), talks about his experience working with VYCC’s Farm Crews and Health Care Share Project and how his service experience led him to where he is today.

VYCC’s Food & Farm Program and Health Care Share Project:

Between March and November every year, VYCC’s Farm Crews prepare produce for Health Care Share participants. The Health Care Share works through Vermont’s centralized healthcare system. Ezra, who served as a Project Lead with VYCC in 2019, explains:

“Medical centers partner with VYCC, then health care providers prescribe Health Care Shares to specific patients, and we provide a 20 – 24-week CSA to however many people are enrolled. When I was there, we provided about 400 – 415 shares. So that’s 400 – 415 patients, every week, from July until October.”

Participants enjoy fresh produce, and chickens; all grown, raised and processed by Corpsmembers.

Ezra’s Experience:

Ezra has a background in environmental studies. After college he helped with community development on farms in Mexico and Guatemala, which led him to work with VYCC’s farm in 2019:

“I was doing that farming aspect, I was doing that manual labor the growing of the food, but serving VYCC’s Health Care Share participants, people who had been identified as having diet related illnesses, that was a game changer for me. The food is going to people in my community and it’s going to benefit them.”

Ezra further explains: “I see the Health Care Share as really dialed in, using medicine, using professionals to identify people and provide them with access to produce and information about that produce. Information is a key part. You can go to the food pantry and pick up a bunch of food but if you’ve never cooked a beet before, it’s not useful.”

As a Project Leader, Ezra and a fellow Corpsmember managed VYCC’s 1.5-acre satellite farm in Northeast Vermont and oversaw a youth crew of 14-18-year-olds.

“With VYCC you’ve got two really strong aspects: produce is going to people facing food insecurity or [who have] diet related illnesses, and the work is being done by young adults who are getting job readiness skills, earning a wage, and learning hard and soft skills that can propel them to the next steps in their life,” said Ezra.

Youth crews and Corpsmembers alike quickly find that farming, while hard work, is rewarding. An average day on the farm involves harvesting, weeding, fixing fence lines, picking insects off plants, and addressing issues as they come, often in peak summer heat.

“You’re constantly scraping one thing off the list and adding two more,” said Ezra.

Despite this, he says that youth crews stay motivated by seeing the tangible difference they make.

“[They see] the impact of the produce that they grew, in dropping off some of these shares, in meeting the recipients, in seeing the joy and excitement and happiness [and people that say], ‘I can’t wait for Thursdays it’s the best day, I get to pick up my CSA.’ And that’s where it’s like, this is the why,” said Ezra.


Growing a New Farm:

Ezra has brought critical farming and leadership skills he gained from VYCC to his current role managing a 2.5-acre farm in Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanic Garden in Staten Island.

“Farming tests your ability to manage time, you’re working with nature and against climate change. You have to become okay with adjusting plans and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s learning to manage those skills for yourself and as a leader – portray those skills with a sense of calm to everybody else.”

The farm Ezra works on now has a similar mission of providing high quality food to the community. The Heritage Farm is located within Staten Island’s only botanical garden (one of the 5 in NYC) and has an 85-member CSA. He says while they don’t have a Health Care Share system, they have a pricing model that allows produce to be accessible across economic ranges. The farm is unique in that they’re one of the only places to buy produce in Staten Island that’s also grown on the Island. Ezra notes that it is especially important from a climate change lens.

He also continues to work with young adults on the farm who can gain job experience while building community and seeing the importance of green spaces on an urban setting and learning how food systems work.


The Future of Farms:

Like VYCC, Ezra views these farms as a way to increase food access within local communities across racial and economic stratification.

“We can definitely be a part of a community that is creating an equitable, just and accessible place for people to enjoy and grow produce for them to have.”

Looking back on his experience with VYCC, Ezra says, “VYCC is in a unique position because they have so much experience and history of working with this demographic of young adult yet they’re on a cusp of a new generation of young farmers that are seeing the impact of small-scale farming within our communities as a way to fight climate change as a way to create equity and justice within our communities.”

Farms like VYCC are helping to reconnect people to their food and where it comes from. Whether Corpsmembers go into farming or not, it gives them a better appreciation for what it takes to grow good food and feed a community.