Juvenile detention center turned ag center highlighted during Pennsylvania Urban Ag Week

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Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding listens to Kristin Green, of Lawrence County Community Action Partnership, talk about the new ag and nutrition lab at the social service agency's Exploration and Innovation Station. The building was formerly a residnetial cottage for a juvenile detention center. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

NEW CASTLE, Pa. — The room used to house troubled youth. There were eight small bedrooms, four on each side, with a hallway running between. 

Now, it’s a spacious and airy agriculture and nutrition center, a classroom where children and adult community members can get hands-on learning experiences. On one side of the room is a demonstration kitchen, with stainless steel tables with stools on each side. Murals depicting brightly colored farm scenes adorn the walls. Two garage doors on the opposite side of the room open to a small garden with raised beds and a greenhouse.

“I can’t get over the scale of this,” said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Secretary, on July 11 as he walked through what used to be a cottage for the New Castle Youth Development Center, a state-run residential juvenile detention facility that closed in 2011.

It’s now Lawrence County Community Action Partnership’s Exploration and Innovation Station. Redding toured the site to kick off the fifth annual Pennsylvania Urban Ag Week. He visited 19 farms and agricultural operations in Erie, New Castle, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre from July 11-15.

Build it

The former cottage was transformed partly thanks to the Pennsylvania Farm Bill’s Urban Agriculture Infrastructure Grant Program, which has invested $1.5 million, in 93 projects in 19 counties, since 2019. Lawrence County Community Action Partnership received $38,300 to buy a hydroponics system, building materials and education supplies.

Lawrence County Community Action Partnership took over the 153-acre facility in 2018. The YDC was built as a 100-bed residential facility for delinquent youth in the early 1970s. It sat vacant for several years before the LCCAP bought it, with plans to turn it into a recreational and educational destination for the community.

The agriculture and food program was born from an idea from Chris Frye, who is now New Castle’s mayor. Formerly, he worked as a community supports coordinator for LCCAP, in the Healthy Homes program, where he visited local families’ homes to identify environmental hazards. He also noticed a lot of canned and overly processed foods, and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in many homes.

“That’s where the idea started,” he said. “Knowing that we needed to find better access and begin to teach it — how to find and produce fresh foods.” 

Frye thought exposure to and access to more nutrient-dense foods could help with other health and developmental issues some children faced.

To start, Frye bought a hydroponics tower, since the facility they were in downtown lacked outdoor space. Once the agency bought the former YDC site, the idea grew slowly into what it is today with the help of other team members. In addition to the ag and nutrition center, greenhouse and garden, there’s an art studio, a dedicated hydroponics room and a STEM lab.

A mini farmers market play set sits in the agriculture and nutrition lab at Lawrence County Community Action Partnership’s Exploration and Innovation Station. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

And they will come

 Kristin Green, a community supports coordinator with LCCAP, said they started holding some programs at the Exploration and Innovation Station last summer. Things ramped up even more this year.

The facility is used by and for children of all ages. The garden provides free, fresh vegetables for the LCCAP Early Learning Families. Green said whatever they harvest each week is set out in the lobby of the childcare center for families to take home as they pick up their children.

Earlier this summer, LCCAP partnered with New Castle City Schools to host a space camp for third to fifth graders. The station was used as a field trip destination twice a week for the camp. Students used drones, built bottle rockets and explored the hydroponics lab, Green said.

At-risk teens, who are referred to LCCAP through the county’s Juvenile Probation Department, have done community service at the Exploration and Innovation Station. They service the hydroponics lab, weed the garden and harvest vegetables. Many of the teens come to love the work and the skills they learn as part of the program, Green said.

“Even when their time is up, they want to come back,” she said. “When you tell them they can get a job in hydroponics for $23 an hour, they are very interested.”

The facility is also open for community groups, like Girl Scouts or 4-H, to rent for activities and programs. 

Urban Ag Week tour

In Erie, Redding visited the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Network, which oversees eight urban gardens throughout the city.  The gardens have helped decrease the number of food deserts in the city, as well as create a student worker program for local high school students.

In Northampton County, Redding visited the Easton Community Garden. The garden is an initiative of The Neighborhood Center, which also operates a community food pantry, feeding more than 400 families. Ross Marcus, the Neighborhood Center executive director, said the Easton farm harvested more than 11,000 pounds of produce on the two-thirds of an acre plot.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 330-337-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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