photographs by Heather Simmons
Many people don't realize that the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Memphis is host to a Technical Training Center. The center, on Walker Street near LeMoyne-Owen College, offers several programs in which teens can gain real world education. Through technical classes like automotive mechanics, and culinary arts, students learn how to change car oil and operate a forklift, as well as the basics of cooking and sanitation.
When the Memphis Boys and Girls Club job placement specialist Tiffanie Grier looked at the culinary program, she knew there was an ingredient missing. While the students were gaining job skills in the culinary field, the program needed a dash of inspiration to complete the recipe.
The original program, which still exists, offers hard and soft culinary skills training to students ages 16 to 21, ie learning the basics of sautéing, baking, and frying. But, Grier says, “I wanted them to be involved in the entire process of food production.” Her vision would take the basic skill set learned and put it to work in a true business. This is exactly what happens in the Garden to Groceries Program.
From the garden to market
Not only do the students chosen for this advanced program grow many of the herbs and vegetables they use, but they also make, market, and sell the products at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores. This offers entrepreneurial opportunities never before imagined by the Boys and Girls Club, enabling students to find their niche in the business world. Grier speaks of the program as a gateway not only into the workforce but also into upper level culinary programs. By participating here, teens gain experience in a variety of work-related positions which offer a multitude of directions for future careers. While one student may not enjoy food production, he might find he excels in sales when manning the table at a local farmer’s market. Sucj was the case for Demarcus Little, who quickly became a top salesperson for the fledgling company. He heads up the sales and sample tables at local farmer’s markets and retailers like Miss Cordelia’s.
Another student might shy away from sales, but be inventive in the kitchen. Eron Jackson, the imaginative cook behind many of the Boys and Girls club quick breads, has developed the skills necessary not only to design new recipes, but to perfect them as well. After running into a problem with her vegan quick bread recipe, Jackson fiddled with the ingredients and soon came up with a solution.
“I added more baking powder to make it more stable,” she says. This is the type of knowledge born of hands-on experience.
A very important secondary benefit of the program is the introduction of new foods to students. Thanks to a program donation, the Boys and Girls club houses six tower gardens. These free-standing, electric tower gardens operate hydroponically without soil, and are an ecologically efficient way to grow vegetables and herbs. By growing vegetables, teens have learned about whole foods, offering new insights into the process each product goes through from farm to table. Through a partnership with the Memphis Zoo and Rosie Hills Field University, students also learn more traditional gardening methods that rounds out their experience.
With gardening come greater insights into nutrition, health, and food flavors. By trying new foods with fresh ingredients, students are able to develop their palates, leading to an increased appreciation for nutritionally dense foods. Greer mentioned one student who claimed to not like garlic, tomatoes, or onions. However, after being introduced to these vegetables cooked in ways she wasn’t familiar, she quickly became a fan of the once shunned ingredients. In fact, even students outside of the program are able to gain new knowledge from what happens in Garden to Groceries.
Grier was aware that many students who came to the club lacked knowledge of whole foods, and the benefits of eating a healthy diet. Enter the Healthy Eating Initiative. Garden to Grocery students have cooked for other club kids and met with enormous success. When asked what foods they liked to eat, most of the children answered pizza. But instead of making a fat-filled pepperoni pizza, the Garden to Groceries students made vegetable pizzas with their popular pesto sauce and a whole-wheat crust. The food was a hit.
Says Grier, “The sense of pride and accomplishment is overwhelming. And these are kids that, when they started, didn’t know what pesto was.”