by Marion Nestle
Mar 20 2015

Weekend reading: Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids

Kiera Butler.  Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids & How its Lessons Could Change Food & Farming Forever.  University of California Press, 2014.

New Picture (1)


Kiera Butler usually writes for Mother Jones (her latest is about how McDonald’s markets to kids) but this time took on an investigative reporter’s immersion into the world of 4-H, the venerable youth-mentoring program aimed at “growing confident kids.”

Although the program’s website says “4-H is the youth development program of our nation’s Cooperative Extension System & USDA,” you have to look hard to see how it relates to its farming origins.

Butler follows several individual 4-H members, young teenagers, who are deeply engaged in raising and showing animals at county fairs.  She follows their experiences for a year and observes their demonstrable growth in skills, confidence, and the handling of disappointment.  These are the impressive accomplishments of this program.

But she is also well aware of the many contradictions of 4-H: the high cost of participation, its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, its promotion of the values of industrial agriculture, the divide between urban and rural members, and the surprising lack of attention to what agriculture is about and its importance to the economy and society.

Her conclusion: 4-H needs to be challenged to promote critical thinking about agriculture.

Raise is a good read and is thoroughly convincing about the need for such thinking.

  • Pingback: Nutritionist and Author Marion Nestle’s Review of “Raise” | Kiera Butler()

  • Steve

    The book sounds interesting and I hope to get a copy of it and read it soon. Since I haven’t read it at this point, I will not attempt to comment on it, but I would like to comment on 4-H in general and the things you mention to be negatives about the program. This is the perspective of a person who grew up in rural America and participated in 4-H as a youth, and who also had 3 children go through 4-H.
    First, regarding the ethnic divide, I believe that is true. And I believe the reason for that is, most 4-H kids are from rural and small town America, which happens to mostly Caucasian. I would like to see other cultures participate and this is possible if we do a better job of getting the word out, that anybody can start a 4-H club. It is all run by volunteers, and there are urban clubs out there. I think if people understood the variety of projects that are available, besides livestock, there would be more participation. There are projects like gardening, photography, rocketry, cooking, sewing, showing pets, wood working, archery, horticulture, and on and on. You don’t need to live on a farm to participate in most of these projects, and nobody is preventing anyone from starting a new club. Most are just not aware of it, or have the stereotype that it is only for farm kids.
    I would disagree about the high cost of participation. That is mostly true of livestock and field crop projects, but I do know city youth that have borrowed other peoples animals to show, and that is allowed.
    Promotion of industrial agriculture is true as well, and I would say that, that is because 95% of agriculture is non-organic and those people happen to be the volunteers that are leaders of projects. But anybody can volunteer to be a leader, and if someone wants to start an organic gardening project, they can do that.
    I’m not sure what the authors comment about, a lack of attention to what agriculture is about, but maybe I can get more insight to that when I read the book. I can say in my experience, the youth I have known are abundantly aware of what agriculture is about, because that is their family’s entire livelihood.
    One thing I can say with absolute certainty, if you ask anybody who has ever participated in 4-H, they will say it was the best time of their life, especially the week of county fair when they have friendly competition to win a blue ribbon against their good friends and competitors, but mostly the camaraderie of the week, just hanging out together and having fun.
    And if you want to teach the youth of today to raise their own food, in their own garden, and then teach them how to cook it or preserve it, 4-H is the best vehicle to accomplish this, and does so by creating an atmosphere of interaction and competition with other youth, in much the same way as involvement in sports, teaches kids about teamwork and sportsmanship. It also teaches children personal responsibility, and gives them something to occupy their time, stimulate critical thinking, and keep them out of mischief. It sure beats sitting on the couch playing video games. It may not be a perfect organization, but is a darn good program that any child will remember for the rest of their life. We do need to increase awareness, so that more youth will get involved.
    Off my soapbox.