At-risk youth participate in community garden program

Salsa sales to benefit Mentoring Positives program

Published On: Sep 20 2012 06:35:41 PM CDT   Updated On: Sep 20 2012 07:48:49 PM CDT
MADISON, Wis. -

A group serving at-risk youth in Dane County is giving some young people the experience of gardening and growing their own food.

Mo Banks and his friends, most of them recent high school grads, are trying their hand at growing food, which they said is a little out of their comfort zone.

"We come out here like, twice a week," Banks said. "Two or three times a week, we come out here and water."

"I didn't think we could farm," said Eric Aikens. "I didn't think we were supposed to be out here."

No one expected them to be out working in the garden until Will Green, executive director of Mentoring Positives, had an idea.

"We call it the edible acre," Green said.

Green said many in Madison grow up never knowing where their food actually comes from.

"A lot of our kids, when we first started this, thought processed food, food in cans, that's the good food," Green said. "When really you could come out here. The freshness of the beans and vegetables out here, once they acquire that taste, there's no beating this."

In addition to getting experience in growing produce, Banks and his friends are using the produce they grow and harvest for a business venture -- Off the Block salsa.

"We turn it into salsa; for the Off the Block salsa. You know, try to get off the block," Banks said.

"It's really good," Aikens said. "Y'all should try some before you leave."

Before ever playing product pitchman, Aikens said, Off the Block may have saved him from a life of problems.

"Truthfully, I think I'd be on the streets," Aikens said. "Probably into juvenile (detention) or something. I don't know for sure. The route I was going, I probably would have been there."

A business venture truly from the ground up, Off the Block salsa combines the yield of a community garden with a lesson in real-world food production. And the group's got a lofty goal in just its third year.

Green said they want to sell 5,000 jars of the salsa.

"I know it seems like a big level," Green said.

Skyrocketing salsa sales may be nice to dream about, but Green said infusing the appetite to succeed comes first.

"We're affecting kids. We're sending kids to college, keeping kids off the streets and engaging our youth," said Green. "And this is our future."

"(Green) believed in me when I couldn't believe in myself, and I appreciate that," Aikens said.

It's why Aikens is heading to college to study accounting and why others in the program want to go into business.

"Can't get too many kids from off the basketball court to come and cook in the kitchen," said program participant Arthur Adams.

One by one, the young entrepreneurs are learning with a little help, they can cultivate their dreams.

"It's that simple," said Green. "You have to put the time in and put the time and energy in it to make this grow."

Proceeds from Off the Block salsa sales will benefit the Mentoring Positives program. For more information on the group or on buying salsa, people can call the Mentoring Positives office at 608-819-6200 or go to www.mentoringpositives.org