Te’Lario Watkins II: Farmer, Activist, Businessman, Youth Leader
Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
“All kids should have enough food to eat to learn and grow.”
At age 12, Te’Lario Watkins II is already a farmer, food activist, successful businessman, and youth leader committed to ending hunger and food waste.
After realizing how much he enjoyed growing cat grass and basil as a Cub Scout, Te’Lario Watkins II decided to get into farming. Through conducting research, he learned that mushrooms grow well in a cold and dark environment. Te’Lario founded Tiger Mushroom Farms when he was just seven years old, and five years later, is managing a thriving business. Te’Lario grows and sells shiitake and oyster mushrooms to high-end restaurants and to customers at three Ohio farmers markets (Worthington Farmers Market, Westgate Farmers Market & the Franklin Park Conservatory Farmers Market).
The Garden Club Project
Te’Lario said one of his main goals is “to help people grow healthy food,” which is why he decided to start The Garden Club Project to help youth grow their own food in community and school gardens. In his own backyard garden, Te’Lario is currently growing tomatoes, carrots, radishes, kohlrabi, spinach, and lettuce.
“My hope for the future is seeing organizations inspire people to eat healthier food and for people to grow their own food.”
This summer and beyond, Te’Lario will continue working in community gardens and inspiring other youth to grow their own food. Tiger Mushroom Farms also plans to partner with several local organizations that will be hosting gardening-related programs this summer. In addition to inspiring youth to grow food, Te’Lario is committed to reducing food waste and addressing food insecurity.
Food Waste & Food Insecurity
According to Feeding America, the United States wastes 72 billion pounds of food annually while 37 million Americans struggle with hunger. “People don’t see that there are people who don’t have enough food, so they usually just put it in the landfill. But a good way to stop that is to make people notice that there are people who don’t have food to eat. [And] you also should be finding places for the food to go… such as food banks,” Te’Lario said.
Following his own advice, Te’Lario partnered with two national organizations, No Kid Hungry and Food Rescue U.S to help put an end to hunger and food waste. “With Food Rescue US, we go to local restaurants, we pick up food, and then we donate [that food] to local food banks,” he said. As a Hunger Hero with No Kid Hungry, Te’Lario hosts an annual Friendsgiving as a way to fundraise and increase awareness around food insecurity.
Family & Community
“My parents inspire me by giving me encouraging words,” Te’Lario said. He made it clear that Tiger Mushroom Farms has become an enjoyable and shared family experience. He and his sister grow and sell the mushrooms, and their parents LaVanya (mother) and Te’Lario (father) offer support and encouragement. “What I enjoy most is working with my family, because I get to spend more time with them,” Te’Lario said. This is a powerful reminder of the importance of building community while fighting for food justice!
When asked who grows the tastiest mushrooms between himself and his co-farmer and sister, Te’Lario didn’t hesitate before convincingly responding: “ME!” He said his favorite mushroom variety is Shiitake “because they’re very versatile, and they’re a great substitute for meat.” His sister’s favorite is oyster mushrooms, which she uses to make mushroom bacon. Te’Lario assured me that it’s a very tasty recipe, and encouraged me to check out other delicious vegetarian mushroom recipes on his website.
Seek Support & Support Others
When asked what challenges he faces in his work, Te’Lario acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to balance his schoolwork alongside running a business. However, he has received a lot of helpful support and encouragement from family members and other mentors.
Ron Finley, also known as “the gangsta gardener,” has been an important mentor and source of inspiration for Te’Lario. Finley is an artist, designer, and gardener based in L.A. who shares Te’Lario’s goal of bringing fresh produce to his community through education and community leadership. It’s not always easy to be a youth leader and bring about change, especially while juggling multiple commitments such as completing school work and running a business. Te’Lario also said that “as an activist, the big frustration is trying to keep wasted food away from the landfill and donating it to local food banks or people who don’t have any food to eat.” As a mentor and advisor to other youth, Te’Lario offers the following words of advice: “Don’t give up. Find mentors to motivate you and a cause you want to support.”
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