Winter doesn’t stop the Cheyenne River Youth Project®. Although the growing season is still many weeks away, the nonprofit youth organization is already engaging children with the concepts of sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty—even the youngest children.

Last month, CRYP kicked off a new session of its Garden Club, inviting 4- to 12-year-olds who attend The Main youth center to learn more about gardening and healthy eating. From 4 to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through April 1, these children will work on creating their own herb gardens, with classes scheduled both in The Main’s kitchen and in the Cokata Wiconi (Center of Life) teen center’s classroom.

“We’ve gotten great feedback from the kids so far, because this combines several interests for them,” said Tammy Granados, CRYP’s youth programs director. “They can be creative with designing their pots, they’ll be entirely responsible for taking care of these young plants as they grow, and they’ll learn how to make a meal with something they grew themselves.

“And, they have some classes at Cokata Wiconi,” she added. “Having a reason to spend time at ‘the big building’ next door is always very significant for them. We like to give them the opportunity as well, because it prepares them for the transition when they turn 13.”

The Garden Club participants will be divided into groups. The first group will be responsible for painting their planters, filling the planters with soil, adding the seeds, watering regularly and, once the seeds have sprouted, maintaining the indoor gardens until the herbs are ready. Then, the young gardeners will harvest their herbs and learn how to incorporate them into homemade pizza sauce.

The second group will grow bush peas in pots. They’ll paint their pots, fill them with soil, add the seeds and, as they grow, water them regularly and trellis them inside. Once the beans are ready for picking, they’ll harvest them and incorporate them into dinner at The Main.

“We’re looking forward to spending time with our Garden Club kids in the coming weeks, not only because these are fun projects, but also because we can encourage them to become more involved with the Winyan Toka Win (Leading Lady) garden when the growing season arrives,” Granados said. “Our sustainable agriculture programs strengthen our connection with the earth, and with our Lakota life ways and values, so it’s important to us that we start working with our kids when they’re small.”

The Winyan Toka Win garden is the beating heart of CRYP’s sustainable agriculture programs and internships, and of its entire Eagle Butte campus. It has been nominated for several awards in the last decade, including the Garden Supply Company’s Garden Crusaders Award of 2005-2006. Community and youth programming for all ages is made possible through a South Dakota Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant, a Native Agriculture and Food Systems grant, additional garden grants from Honor the Earth, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, the Wellmark Foundation and the J.R. Albert Foundation, and generous contributions from a variety of individual supporters.

Thanks to Winyan Toka Win, CRYP is able to harvest thousands of pounds of crops each year that staff members incorporate into daily youth meals and snacks, regular and specialty menu items in the seasonal farm-to-table Keya (Turtle) Cafe, and dried and canned food items for sale through the Keya Gift Shop. The youth project also hold its weekly Leading Lady Farmers Market throughout the summer and fall seasons, and it hosts community members at its annual Harvest Festival dinner.

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The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.