Project shows Manchester teens how food makes it to the table
Ivanna Siller of Manchester and Mickey McGlasson of Americorps, right, work on building a shade shelter during a 10-week street outreach program at the gardens on River Road in Manchester on Thursday. Child and Family Services is providing the vocational program for homeless youth from the Manchester schools. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Sara DeBonis waters the garden she helped plant during a 10-week street outreach program at the gardens on River Road in Manchester on Thursday. At left is fellow participant Ivanna Siller. Child and Family Services is providing the vocational program for homeless youth from the Manchester schools. DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER
Lesson No. 1: It's work.
“All I knew is you just water the plants and it grows but I didn't know there was a lot more to it,” said Ivanna Siller, a 16-year-old taking part in Child and Family Services of New Hampshire's summer outreach program. “The growing, the planting and the watering, it's a lot more work than I thought it was.”
The “Farm to Table” project includes six teens who are learning what it takes to grow, cook and even market their own product over the 10-week program. The youths come from some sort of unstable living situation and the program is designed to keep them busy during the summer while teaching them skills they can use later in life.
“I think this is really out of their comfort zone. A lot of the youth you see here, being out here in the hot sun and getting dirty, I don't think many of their peers are doing this,” said program director Jennifer Comeau, a social worker for Child and Family Services. “They're all tired at the end of the day, which is good. And, they're showing up the next day.”
Comeau and her crew were spending a sunny Thursday morning at the New Hampshire Food Bank gardens outside the Sununu Youth Services Center on North River Road. The day's project was building a shelter to provide a little shade after working the long rows of vegetables in the large garden.
That meant digging up the long grass and clearing out a space, then working with an AmeriCorps representative who was taking them through the basics of construction, from precisely measuring the wooden poles they would use to digging post holes deep enough to support the structure.
Siller, one of the more eager and talkative members of the crew, grabbed a post-hole digger and got right to it as her coworkers shoveled and cleared away the dirt. It was one of the more arduous tasks of the day, but Siller went scoop-by-scoop until the hole was several feet deep.
“I'm used to working inside. This is kind of new but I like it,” said Siller, who will be a junior at Manchester Central High School this fall. “Just being out in the sun, getting a tan and working at the same time. Doing something productive.”
It also beat one of the earlier assignments — debugging some of the plants in the garden before the insects could damage this summer's crop.
“That was the grossest thing ever — squishing bugs,” Siller said with a shiver.
Sara DeBonis, a 17-year-old who also goes to Central, took a more cautious approach while working in the field. Wearing hot-pink socks under her sandals, DeBonis said this part of the program may not be for her.
“I don't really like farming all that much; I'm used to the city,” she said. “It's a little interesting. Maybe I could get into gardening at home.”
There is much more to the program than gardening. The group is also learning how to cook with the herbs and vegetables the teens have cultivated, ultimately creating a tomato sauce they will can and market with a little guidance from experts in various fields who have volunteered their time.
“They're taking away not only a vocational experience, but knowledge that will really build their life-skills toolbox,” Comeau said.”
“We're really trying to stress life skills. All the things that we're doing is all about what will help them for the rest of their life and into the transition into adulthood.”
The first step was coming up with the product's name. After a great deal of debate, the choice was made: “So Wicked Fresh Sauce” should be available by the end of the summer.
Nicole Barreira, better known as “Chef Nicole” of T-BONES and Cactus Jack's, has been giving some basic cooking lessons and will help with the sauce. The group will also need to learn how to can the sauce while meeting health guidelines, then market it. An expert from Centrix Bank, one of the many sponsors contributing to the project, will help with the business plan, providing yet another lesson in the many facets of “Farm-to-Table.”
“We wanted to do something where they would see a beginning and end,” Comeau said. “There's something about being able to say 'Hey, we made this. We know what to do with it and we can sell it. It's worth something.'”
Kat Strange, communications director for Child and Family Services, said the experience should prove more valuable than the sauce itself. She said funding for the pilot program comes from sponsors and various philanthropic organizations that support the non-profit agency, which hopes to conduct the program again next summer.
“I think of it as a true empowerment type of project,” Strange said. “It's about giving the tools and skills with which they can build their own success.”
For more information, contact Child and Family Services of New Hampshire: cfsnh.org/index.html.
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