First Steps towards urban sustainability: Megan Chen

A youth-led gardening initiative is addressing food insecurity and growing a greener world.

First Steps - An interview series produced by Ashoka. Changemakers tell us how they began to make a difference in the world, all starting with one or two first steps.


By Manat Kaur

Over 60 percent of residents in the U.S. state of Delaware live in areas where there is no grocery store. When she learned how food insecurity was impacting her community, student Megan Chen felt compelled to do something.

After spending months learning about the problem and talking to fellow residents, Megan started The Urban Garden Initiative (TUGI). Today her community in Delaware comes together to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, tackling food insecurity while also promoting sustainable lifestyles. What started as a few workshops in a few local schools has now expanded to 40+ chapters internationally.

Ashoka Young Changemaker Manat Kaur connected with Megan to hear more about the story behind it all and what she’s learned. Here’s what Megan had to say on doing the research, staying focused, and forming a strong team.

MK: Tell us about your project.

Megan: The Urban Garden Initiative is a nonprofit that aims to help youth reach urban sustainability through a gardening-based program. We work to teach students and the surrounding community about how to live greener and more sustainable lives via gardening, environmental workshops and programs, and global environmental initiatives with our partner organizations.

When did you first realize you had to take action, and how did you come up with your idea?

I remember learning about the problem of food deserts and food insecurity in my freshman year of high school. All people should have access to reasonably priced, healthy fruits and vegetables. I was truly bewildered by how many communities near me did not. After researching to learn more about solutions put into place and talking to local individuals about the problem, I turned to gardening. This has been something that I have always been passionate about and enjoyed doing ever since I was very young. From that point on, we began forming TUGI.

What was your first step?

Research! I wanted to gain knowledge from people and communities that were dealing first-hand with these food sustainability issues on a daily basis. The summer before I started TUGI, I got the opportunity to work at an urban farm right in the center of Wilmington, Delaware where I was able to not only learn more about urban gardening but also connect to the local community on a weekly basis via farmers markets where I would help to sell produce.

From these farmers markets I learned more about what strategies had been set in place to tackle these problems and got feedback on some of the ideas that I had been creating. These helped me to have a much clearer picture of the solution before launching TUGI.


Students working on a community harden, part of Megan's initiative.


How did you start implementing your idea?

We started by working with a few schools in Delaware to test out the educational program that we had developed. From each workshop that we led, we got plenty of valuable feedback. We learned about what topics and activities resonated better with students and which ones did not work. Many surveys, workshops, and gardening activities later, we began to develop our base program.

What obstacles did you face and how have you overcome them?

One major challenge for me was figuring out when to say no to new opportunities. Although it is so important to take on new projects, create new partnerships, etc. not every single partnership is the perfect fit. Initially, it is so easy to say yes to everyone that approaches your new organization, but sometimes it can distract you from your focus. My advice for others is to always stay true to your mission and partner with organizations and people who value that.

Who else supported you throughout your journey? What role did they play?

My incredible board of directors have been an amazing support system and helped our organization to work through so many challenges, especially as we worked through our initial growing pains. (Shoutout to Sophia Angeletakis, Randi Novakoff, Madison Walter, and Malika Yates!)

What advice would you give to other young people who want to make a difference but don’t know where to begin?

Form a strong team. It’s so important to find the right people who support the mission of your organization and are willing and able to commit to making that mission and vision a reality. This may be a bumpy road, but you will be able to meet so many incredible people as you take action on the issues you are looking to solve.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The First Steps series, founded by Ashoka Young Changemaker Manat Kaur, aims to demystify changemaking and show how anyone can start making a change. Follow Ashoka to learn more about #EveryoneAChangemaker and #LeadYoung.

Learn more about Megan’s work here: