ST. LOUIS (AP) – What used to be 10 city blocks in St. Louis is now an outdoor classroom where refugees are learning about organic food production, perhaps on their way to becoming farmers.

The urban agriculture program run by the International Institute of St. Louis is among 19 across the country funded by grants from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. This year’s grants total $1 million nationwide.

“There has really been a wellspring of interest in this around the country,” said Larry Laverentz, who manages the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, based in Washington. “Organizations are recognizing that refugees’ being able to farm has real value. It’s proven that it’s good for them in terms of supplemental income and helps integrate them into the community. Many of the refugees were farmers in their countries of origin. They can grow familiar foods, and it provides better nutrition.”

First Lady Michelle Obama called the program “a model for the nation, for the world” when she visited a community farm in San Diego last year.

In St. Louis, 11 refugees from five countries are participating in a three-year program that starts with English language classes specific to farming terms. Students also take finance classes and learn to farm a variety of crops.

The institute will work to find apprenticeships for those in the program during their second year. And by the third year, the refugees will be able to apply for a loan through the agency to lease or buy small plots of land for farming, usually in urban areas. That’s considered an important aspect of the program since most refugees lack credit history to apply for a traditional bank loan.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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