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Partnership connects urban youth to careers in ag and food innovation

Youth at Jackie Joyner Kersee Center doing science experiments
EAST ST. LOUIS: The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and University of Illinois Extension provide educational programs in urban agriculture, leadership, health and nutrition, and career development to youth at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center. Photo provided.

URBANA, Ill. – Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee believes every youth should be given the opportunity to achieve greatness. The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis is a safe learning center where youth are instilled with the dream, drive, and determination to succeed in academics, athletics, and leadership.

Inspired by Joyner-Kersee’s passion to empower her community, new partners have joined efforts to elevate youth potential. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is providing STEM and Ag curriculum with authentic research experiences for K-12 students in genetics, molecular biology, image analytics and offering internships for high school at its innovative research facility in St. Louis. 

“We are creating a hands-on STEM education and work force development pipeline from kindergarten  to adult that provides opportunities for people to develop marketable skills in urban agriculture, innovation, and entrepreneurship while learning about the importance of food production and improving their own communities’ access to nutrition,” said Kristine Callis-Duehl, the Sally and Derick Driemeyer director of education research and outreach at the Danforth Center.

The partnership aligns with outreach efforts launched in 2019 by University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). Working through the local Illinois Extension office, ACES efforts focus on youth engagement, health and nutrition, and economic expansion through metropolitan food production and community education.

“This collaboration epitomizes what ACES strives for in everything that we do – providing pathways for people and communities to thrive,” College of ACES Dean Kim Kidwell says. “Working closely with our partners at the JJK Center and Danforth Plant Science Center, this project positions youth in the East St. Louis area for successful career pathways to address economic development and food access issues that too often plague inner cities.

“From planting the first seed to harvesting nutritious food at JJK and experiencing hands-on learning at Danforth, we hope this program inspires young people to graduate from college with a degree in plant sciences or a related field and then return home to make a difference in their communities.”

Amy Cope, Illinois Extension county director for Madison, Monroe, and St. Clair counties, says, “Each partner believes in dedicating resources to the underserved families of East St. Louis. By joining together the impact is endless. The collaboration strives to provide community education and hands-on instruction in community-supported agriculture programs by establishing community gardens, vertical farming sites, and a commercial test kitchen for food innovation.”

Researchers from the Danforth Center will open new avenues for youth in the areas of agriculture, food, STEM, and college and career readiness.

The Danforth Center offers time, expertise, energy, and facilities in the partnership as they challenge students to connect the food on their plate to the plants that produce the food they eat. Research at the Danforth Center drives innovation to improve the human condition through better understanding of plant science.

“Research conducted by the student interns will contribute to advancing our scientific research projects,” says Ruth Kaggwa, Danforth Center STEM education and outreach manager. “As high school interns gain new skills, they earn expertise badges, mimicking workforce development practices in real world careers.”

Infrastructure development is required to support the goals of the collaboration, and efforts are well underway, Cope says. The expanded site will be located at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center and will include additional classrooms, demonstration areas, greenhouses, community gardens, and a commercial test kitchen, all which will contribute to experiential learning methodology and community engagement.

The announcement coincides with National 4-H Week Oct. 4-10 which features the theme Opportunity4All and highlights the organization’s mission to ensure all youth have equal access to opportunities to reach their potential. Learn more about the outreach efforts and ways to support the project by contacting Cope at or 618-939-3434.

SOURCE: Kristine Callis-Duehl, Director of Education Research and Outreach, Danforth Center
SOURCE: Amy Cope, County Director, Illinois Extension
WRITER: Judy Mae Bingman, Communications and Marketing Manager, Illinois Extension
DANFORTH MEDIA CONTACT: Karla Roeber, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center,, 314.406.4287

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.

About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment, and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter.