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Way Better than Summer School!

Students grow or pick, then sell and donate fresh produce

December 2, 2006 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Emily Ann Reardon
  A statewide program helped young Jorden Smith grow vegetables in Detroit’s Earth Works Urban Garden, sell it at churches and soup kitchens, and give away some of it to people whose neighborhood stores do not carry fresh produce.

TRAVERSE CITY—All last summer, Shawn Morgan, a 14-year-old middle school student at Forest Area Schools, started his Saturdays at an astonishingly early hour for a teenager. He rolled out of bed at 4:30 a.m., the sky still dark, and caught a 30-minute ride west, in a minivan with other students, to this northern Michigan town’s farmers market.

But Shawn didn’t come here to shop. At 6:30 a.m. he and his 4-H club friends erected four blue and green canvas canopies and arranged 11 tables with brightly colored tablecloths as, in the quiet dawn, the occasional diligent jogger ran by. But by 8 a.m., the teens were busy selling to bustling crowds eager for their juicy strawberries and, later in the season, cherries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and even eggplant—all direct from some of the farms dotting the rolling landscape of this very rural region.

Meanwhile, 250 miles south, in very urban, inner-city Detroit, 11-year-old Jorden Smith was already up, too, and doing almost exactly the same thing: Waiting on her front porch to be picked up at 8 a.m. with a group of her neighborhood friends who, like her, grew their own produce in an urban garden. They set up shop in front of a local church, or next to a local soup kitchen, sold their fresh fruits and vegetables, and became neighborhood stars.

“They bought a lot, they said, ‘Thank you,’ and said that we were doing something really good,” Jorden recalled.

Both sets of kids made money, invested in the local farm economy, and learned the pleasures of both selling food and of giving it away to financially strapped families. They even began snacking on fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk food.

Shawn and Jorden had such unusual, rewarding summers because they were part of a statewide, non-profit “youth farm stand” project sponsored by the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Agriculture Food Systems at Michigan State University. The program is one of a growing number across America that use local farm foods to introduce young people to entrepreneurial skills and healthy food—crucial things in a state with soaring unemployment and obesity rates.

The program also aims to grow family farm incomes, which are in bad shape in Michigan and across the nation, and get good food to financially strapped families in economically depressed communities—like the ones where country boy Shawn and city girl Jorden live.

‘Fresh’ Solutions to Shared Problems
Shawn lives in Kalkaska County, which has the state’s sixth-highest percentage of families whose incomes qualify their kids for federal school lunch programs. In Jorden’s neighborhood in Detroit, nearly one-third of the households earn less than $10,000 a year and, as in many other depressed urban areas, live prohibitively far from full-service grocery stores selling fresh produce.

In fact, the “grocery stores” in Jorden’s neighborhood are party stores selling alcohol, pop, chips, and processed food. No wonder that the adults who bought produce from Jorden and her friends clamored so hard for their fresh snap beans, Roma tomatoes, and collard greens.

Family farmers, meanwhile, clamor for a new economy that allows them to make a living. The global, industrial food market that favors very large growers and cheaper prices has shut most of them out. Without a change, the state could lose 71 percent of its smaller, 50-to-499 acre farms by 2040, according to one study. And that is why what Shawn and Jorden are doing carries genuine economic promise for smaller farms.

Prosperity for such farms lies in tapping local markets, according to a recent study by the Mott Group and the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute: Michigan’s farms could gain $164 million in new net income annually by switching from low-price, bulk-processing markets to better-paying, rapidly growing, fresh food markets.

And that is why growers like Urka Strawberry Farm, outside Traverse City, appreciate students like Shawn, who picked and sold Urka’s berries.

“Expanding local markets is very important,” said Joy Urka who, along with her husband John and son Cary, began shifting their farm from ruinously low-priced bulk commodity sales to u-pick and other fresh local markets about eight years ago. According to Ms. Urka, “Now we’re making a profit.”

In all, Shawn’s group of teenage entrepreneurs spent nearly $10,000 purchasing, at wholesale prices, products from 14 different farms—everything from acorn squash, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables to maple syrup, honey, and fruit preserves. By selling regularly at three area farmers markets, they opened up new markets for the farms, always earned enough money to buy the next week’s produce, and even paid themselves a wage—in Shawn’s case, $10.07 an hour.

Learning the Facts of Farm Life
But Shawn and his fellow students also gained a healthy appreciation for what it takes to grow food—and sell it.

“I never really realized how much work it was,” Shawn said. “Going to the store and just buying it—we never thought about where it came from and how much work went into it. When we were picking strawberries, the hot sun was over your head and it was really exhausting. If it weren’t for farmers, we wouldn’t have food for everyone else.”

Jorden’s experience was a bit more first-hand. She grew a wide variety of food in deep beds at Detroit’s nonprofit Earth Works Urban Farm, loved harvesting vegetables, and learned how to do it properly so they wouldn’t get bruised in packing. And this young girl who had no idea how important healthy soil was now fiercely protects garden beds.

“You can’t step on beds that have plants in them because if you do, that will hurt the plants,” she said. “And when you step on it, all that hard work is gone to waste.”

Jim Harper, the Michigan State University’s extension agent for Kalkaska County, who chauffeured Shawn’s group last summer, said the kids soaked up all sorts of brand-new farm facts.

“They can tell you how long it takes hydroponic tomatoes to grow, how many pounds of strawberries are in a quart, and how long it takes to pick a lug of cherries,” Mr. Harper said.

They also learned what their customers most valued.

“‘Is this grown in Michigan?’ That is the question we had most often,” Shawn said. “People really enjoyed buying the local stuff.”

The Art of Retail, the Joys of Giving
They also learned the friendly art of retail sales, including friendly conversation.

“It’s hard to start a business if you are really shy,” Shawn said. “You can’t sit there and expect people to come to you.”

Jorden’s project coordinator, DeJuane Johnson, taught his kids retail basics.

“Number one, when a customer comes, all the attention is on the customer,” Jorden recalled, ticking off key points. “Number two, never fight with a customer or act rude with them, because they will tell other people that our business is bad. And always give them a good price if they don’t have a lot of money.”

Jorden said she better understood that last point when selling near a soup kitchen.

“This woman didn’t have all of her money on her,” she recalled. “We let her slide with the money she had on her. She went into a meeting, and she told people, and when she came out she brought a lot of other people with her and they bought from us.”

Actually, both youth groups found out even more about the joy of giving. Thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan Department of Community Health, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, they had money to purchase local farm products and give them to neighbors in need. Jorden’s group gave food away to 821 people at soup kitchens, while Shawn’s printed coupons for social service agencies, which then gave them to low income families. About 100 families redeemed coupons repeatedly over the summer.

Both youth groups prepared for their summer’s work at a retreat last winter, where they learned to write mission statements and business plans and studied nutrition and fruit and vegetable preparation. Jorden and her friends learned to recommend produce that tastes great raw to people who were too poor to have stoves.

“They were saying, ‘God bless you,’ and it felt really good,” she said.

New Diets, New Future?
And, both groups agreed, so did the change in their eating habits. By the end of the summer, they were eating less of the typical teen junk foods and more of the fresh, tasty food they were selling.

“That might seem like a small thing, but it is really huge for them to be willing to try new vegetables,” said Kirstin Tannas, the diaconal minister at the Iroquois Avenue Christ Lutheran Church, which headed the Detroit project along with Earth Works.

The youngsters are looking to next year. The Kalkaska students are talking about “franchising” their effort to include more students, who they would train to go to still more farm markets. The Detroit students are eying those junk food-filled convenience stores.

“We would like to talk to some of the owners of these stores and see if we could sell in front of their stores,” Jorden said. “Then, they could attract more customers, too.”

No matter what, the kids are prepared to get up early again.

“At first, it was really hard to get up,” Jorden said. But soon the kids were out waiting on their porches each morning, ready to go. “You had to, because there were things to do. And it started being fun.”

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and former farm market master, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s farm-to-cafeteria program. You can reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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