Mo Banks and Raphael Ragland admit that urban farming wasn't really their idea of the ideal summer job.
"At first, it sounded crazy. I thought, 'Farming? Whoa,'" says Banks, 17, of his reaction to an idea to create salsa from city-grown vegetables. "After we learned about what was going to be happening, I thought I'd try it."
This summer, these teens are part of a group that will build a small enterprise from the ground up. They'll create Off the Block Salsa from concept to jar to pantry. Run through the Mentoring Positives program, this project is putting the kids, most from the multicultural Darbo-Worthington neighborhood, to work in an entirely new way and getting them experience that will last a lifetime.
It's just one of the kids' activities happening this summer at the Darbo Community Garden. Located on a 50-by-70-foot corner square of the Salvation Army Community Center lawn along Rosemary Avenue and Darbo Drive, the garden this year is teaching neighborhood kids of all ages how to dig in the dirt and grow food to feed themselves and their neighbors.
The idea for Off the Block Salsa sprouted when Madison community activist Joe Mingle met Will Green, founder and executive director of the Mentoring Positives program, which serves 40 at-risk youth from the Salvation Army Community Center.
"We were thinking about how we could find ways for the kids to be involved and get a summer job," Green explains. "We came up with the salsa idea and thought we could have the kids grow the food also."
This project is ideal, says Green, because it's far more than just another summer job. "It's more behind the scenes. That's the beauty of it, to have them sitting down and learn marketing, accounting, having a meeting and handing out tasks to see what needs to be done next."
Green admits that he thought the project was a long shot."
"Doing the agriculture stuff, I thought the boys would think, no way. But those boys thought about it, and the more they did, the more it made sense."
This spring, Mingle started meeting regularly with the salsa group to plan steps to bring the local salsa to market. One of the teens will serve as special events coordinator, another will become lead salesman and others on the team will handle marketing and communication, among other necessary tasks.
He believes Off the Block Salsa will hit all the right notes. "We all know that the urban food thing is really hot, and there are also issues of social justice and race that come into the conversation. It's a great coming together of all these things."
Green started the nonprofit Mentoring Positives organizations for at-risk youth in 2004 and runs the program with wife and assistant director Becky Green. The referral program targets elementary-age kids through teens with intervention services and mentoring help.
Some of the salsa vegetables will be raised by kids at the Darbo garden. Others will be donated. Although plans are still forming, the salsa is expected to be produced at the Salvation Army.
Other kids' activities in the garden this summer involve children participating in the Salvation Army's summer day camp program, as well as neighborhood kids who informally join gardeners as they do their work in the evenings.
"They just swarm us," says Larry Orr, a retired teacher and Darbo gardener. "We teach them how to use shovels and wheelbarrows. Then, they teach each other."
Sections of the garden are set aside for kids to grow rows of green beans, chard, turnips, zucchini and more. Some of the produce will go to the Salvation Army's food pantry.
The food pantry also benefits from community service by teens fulfilling hours for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. "I live in the neighborhood and see a lot of people working here and thought I'd give it a try, and I love it," says first-time gardener Chris Williams, 17, who has done 30 of 50 required community service hours at the garden. "It relieves a lot of stress, honestly."
It was Raphael Ragland who came up with the name Off the Block. "It's saying we come from a place where many people look at us and think we're not going to succeed. We're going to hit back by trying to do all that we can do to succeed."
Ragland moved from Chicago to Madison's Worthington Park neighborhood when he was 11. A student at Sun Prairie High School and member of the school's basketball team, he's been part of Mentoring Positives for six years. He sees the program, and opportunities like the salsa project, as a way to gain skills, improve his neighborhood and his life.
"Just last summer, I lost two of my closest friends," Ragland says. (The two teens were killed in a car crash on Milwaukee Street.) "Will took us off the street and into the gym."
Banks concurs. "We're not out getting into trouble. We owe that all to Will." Banks moved to Madison from Gary, Ind., when he was 7; he attends the Madison Schools' Work to Learn program, and expects to graduate next year.
For Ragland, who is looking forward to attending college after graduation next year, the garden and the salsa project is an open door. "This shows we can do a lot more than play sports and make music. We have all types of skills from farming to business."
The project is part of a trend nationwide toward urban agriculture. "The way we all connect is through food. White, black. We all eat," says Ragland.