Spicing it up
Sept./Oct. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee and Tracy Sellers
Sacramento's Grant High School measures the success of its student-run salsa business by how the teens are responding.
Salsa business inspires urban teens
Salsa may now be as common as ketchup, but for students in Sacramento's Grant High School, a jar of the popular tomato condiment also packs plenty of food for thought.
Students from Grant High School in Sacramento show off jars of E.A.T. from the Garden salsa, a product that grew out of an after-school gardening program that connects agriculture with business economics. Front row, from left, Alejandro Ayala, Jazmin Castillo and Idette Lopez; back row, Ja Thor, Jimmie Lee and Jonathan Maestas.
Through a garden-based curriculum that links lessons in horticulture, landscaping, nutrition and business economics, the urban high school is teaching teens in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods what it takes to produce food—and get it to the consumer.
What began as an after-school gardening program 10 years ago has now flourished into a self-sustaining, student-run salsa business that tries to provide a hands-on approach to real-life applications so that students see the relevance of school, said teacher and garden coordinator Ann Marie Kennedy.
"We recognize that students have a diversity of interests and we just want to hook them on some level in the environment, primarily as eaters and consumers, and agriculture certainly is one key thing," she said.
The salsa business grew out of the school's quarter-acre garden, which students named the Garden of Ethnic American Treasures, or GO EAT.
Farmer Bruce Rominger grows the tomatoes used in the students' salsa.
After securing funding from the city, students at Grant started working with a food scientist and came up with a number of different recipes, everything from pesto to a red pepper pasta sauce to the two types of salsa—traditional and spicy peach—they now sell.
Kennedy said students initially wanted to grow all the tomatoes for the salsa, "but it became obvious that they didn't have time for that because it was a huge endeavor." So they started talking to different local farmers who would be willing to partner with them.
The first lesson they learned was that they couldn't work with fresh-market tomato farmers; they needed a processing tomato farmer. That led them to Bruce Rominger in Winters, a farming community in Yolo County about 40 miles west of Sacramento.
Students visit the farm twice a year—during harvest in the fall and in the spring for planting—to learn how tomatoes for their salsa are grown. Kennedy said the idea is to take the students from the outdoor classroom of the school garden, where they learn how to grow plants, to an actual farm.
Rominger, who has given plenty of farm tours over the years, said he welcomes the opportunity to expose urban youth to agriculture.
"I think farmers always need to do a better job of getting our message out and helping the rest of the world—the consumers, the urban population—understand what our business is like and what we're doing," he said. "Hopefully they appreciate it and think it's important like we do."
But Rominger doesn't simply focus on the tomato fields when he's directing his student tours. He said he likes to talk about "the big picture" and important agricultural issues whenever he can.
Students Ja Thor and Wa Cha work in the school garden.
"Like there was a question about irrigation water and where I get it," he said, referring to a talk he gave last spring. "So that was a good segue for me to talk about the difficulties this year with the drought and the water situation statewide and how important it is to agriculture. It is important to all the people here because everybody eats."
Students also learn where Rominger's tomatoes go after they leave his farm. To see the manufacturing side, they visit Campbell Soup Co. in nearby Dixon, where the tomatoes are processed into salsa. Then they go to a bottling company in Sonoma to watch the finished product—named E.A.T. from the Garden, after the school garden—roll off the assembly line.
All students involved in the after-school garden program take part in selling the salsa by doing product demos at stores and farmers markets. The salsa is currently available at the school campus, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Davis Farmers Market, Del Paso Heights Farmers Market and Taylor's Market, which has also agreed to carry the product in its online store at www.taylorsmarket.com.
Last year, the school also introduced an economics class based on the salsa business, where students learn the ins and outs of running a business.
They work in teams that cover sales, marketing, finance and operations. They do basic bookkeeping and accounting, make sales presentations and handle all the various steps that get their product through the different distribution chains and into the retail market.
Debra DeBondt, an independent trainer hired to work with the students, said integrating the school garden program with the salsa business class not only provides students with a better idea of what they're selling, but it also allows them to take more ownership of the product.
"They need to know their product, and it's really hard for students to get it until they see it," she said. "When they see the tomato fields and they see the tomatoes being produced, they get it."
The salsa business has also grown. When it first started in 2003, the students were selling about 500 jars a year. Now they sell about 3,000 jars, grossing $12,000 to $15,000 annually. Their profit is between $5,000 and $6,000, Kennedy said, and that money goes to fund field trips and college scholarships.
Jeneal Herrera and Chalani Iosefa, from Grant High School’s salsa business class, visit a bottling company in Sonoma and try their hands at packaging the finished product.
"It's hard-earned money. That's the other thing I see students realize," she said. "The reality is, business is hard. It's not easy to make a buck. You've got to be a pretty hard-working, detailed-oriented person to make it successful."
But she said the success of the program is not measured by how much money the students make from the salsa, but how they are responding: They're staying in school, graduating and going on to college.
"I think they form really strong social bonds in the process, and it's really important that they have positive peer groups," she said.
Josif Morar, who was a graduating senior last year, said before taking the salsa business class, he didn't have any interests or much going on for him in school.
"I was more like a hidden person," said the 18-year-old. "I didn't want to be known. I wanted to be invisible. I didn't talk or get out that much. But then I got involved with this (program), and they made us go outdoors a lot, and I got to experience more."
As finance team leader for the salsa business, Morar handled all the bookkeeping using QuickBooks, an accounting software. He also participated in numerous sales events and gave company presentations, which he said helped him overcome his fear of public speaking.
For 17-year-old Shoua Lor, working in the school garden was an easy choice. Her parents were farmers in Thailand and are still avid gardeners, even though they live in the city. She said they take comfort in knowing she's working in the garden after school and not getting into trouble.
Students Shoua Lor and Becky Cha tell a shopper at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op about the salsa, which comes in traditional and spicy peach.
Unlike Lor, 18-year-old Jonathan Maestas, who graduated from Grant last year and was in the salsa class, had no previous experience in gardening and got involved in the after-school program only because he needed to do community service. But working the soil and being outdoors really grew on him, and he ended up sticking with the program.
He said now he has a garden of his own at home and credits the program and the salsa class for influencing him to pursue a future in landscape architecture or culinary arts.
"I learned a lot of things," he said, reflecting on his three years with the program. "I learned how to garden. I learned how to talk to people. I know teamwork and have skills. I've become a leader."
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.