Reaching at-risk youth through food
BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
Rancho Cielo graduates prepare a pop-up artichoke feast held by
Pezzini Farms and Casanova restaurant in June 2012.
Photo by Rob Fisher
Harnessing the considerable power of sustainable food and agriculture here on the Central Coast, five local nonprofits are reaching out to marginalized kids and helping them become successful adults. The oldest of these programs is Rancho Cielo, which occupies 100 acres in the foothills east of Salinas. It was founded in 2000 to help young people from low-income families who were in trouble with the law or just having difficulty making it through high school. “This year we’ve had two of our kids shot in the head near their homes,” says Executive Director Susie Brusa, explaining that Rancho Cielo is a safe haven from street violence. “It’s hard to focus on a math test if you are worried about getting stabbed, on your break,” she adds.
In addition to safety, teens get individualized academic instruction leading to a high school diploma and job training. Originally students were trained in the construction trades, but two years ago Rancho Cielo opened the Drummond Culinary Academy, now headed by Chef Paul Lee, to take advantage of all the job opportunities in the hospitality industry on the Monterey Peninsula.
“The way we measure success is getting a job and keeping it, or going on to higher education and staying out of trouble,” says Brusa. Curriculum for the culinary academy comes from the National Restaurant Association, so graduates receive a nationally recognized certificate and can work anywhere in the country.
Restaurateur Bert Cutino, chef/owner of Monterey’s Sardine Factory, has successfully involved many of the peninsula’s top chefs in the program, allowing students to be exposed to different cooking styles. One has even ended up working in his kitchen.
Starting in October, the culinary academy will begin serving dinner to the public on Friday nights. Rancho Cielo students do all the cooking and serving and even grow flowers for the tables themselves. Dinners are a good value at $15–$25 for three courses and are a great way to show support for a worthy program.
Vocational training in culinary arts is part of a “whole systems” approach to educating youth at Lightfoot Industries and Lifestyle Culinary Arts’ after-school programs, both in Santa Cruz County.
“Vocational training has long been lost in this country,” says Lightfoot founder Carmen Kubas. “Kids are not gaining entry-level work skills.”
he Santa Cruz County Office of Education is very supportive of vocational training and is trying to fill the gap with courses in everything from aquaculture to engine repair. Their culinary arts program, taught by Chef Andrea Mollenauer of Lifestyle Culinary, attracts about 90 students a year. They attend class once a week for four hours and earn Cabrillo College credits.
“I try to mimic what it is like to be out in the field, with lots of accountability and lots of long, hard, hot days—like a real kitchen,” Mollenauer says. Students also gain real life experience, by cooking and serving at catered events for nonprofit organizations.
“The fact that kids are working with food is a very nurturing, therapeutic and creative experience,” says Kubas, who hopes to someday open a Lightfoot Café with her students.
Combining her experience as a teacher, restaurant consultant, parent and soccer coach, Kubas has developed a three-year comprehensive program that includes a wellness component where students study yoga, nutrition, meditation, life skills and what she calls sustainable professional development or “soul craft.”
“We try to identify what their soul craft is—what lights their fire —then identify the education pieces that are needed, set goals and go for it!” Kubas says.
Until the café opens, Lightfoot Industries will continue to hold supper clubs at various locations around Santa Cruz and bake and market their wholesale line of luscious gluten-free pies (including sweet potato, Meyer lemon chess and strawberry-balsamic-chèvre). Students do all the cooking and serving. “It’s a big win-win,” she says. “The community gets to see these kids in a different light, and the kids get to interact with people they don’t normally meet.”
Last summer she and the students worked on the farm at Esalen Institute, harvesting and preparing food. “It goes a long way towards connecting them to the local ecosystem and eventually helps make them better stewards of the land,” she says.
FROM SEED TO TABLE
Hands-on learning, rather than sitting in a classroom, is key to all five food programs. At Food, What?! in Santa Cruz—part of the nonprofit Life Lab located at the UCSC Farm—about 50 low-income high school students grow and cook their own food. To make pretzels or pizza, they go through the entire process: planting and growing wheat; threshing it; grinding it; and finally preparing the food and eating it.
“You’re outdoors and physical, and that works really well with a lot of kids who have struggled in school,” says Director Doron Comerchero. “It’s also a beautiful and safe place, where youth can take the first steps in developing positive self-esteem.”
During the summer, about half the students are hired to run the organic Food, What?! farm. They take high-quality produce home to their own families, helping cut down on grocery bills and sharing what they have learned about eating vegetables on the farm. Excess produce is sold at Gault Elementary School on Thursdays at a low-income farm stand that will operate until Halloween.
“The farm stand provides youth with transferable job skills, like setup, display and accounting,” says Comerchero. “And they are providing a community service.”
There are four applicants for every place in the popular Food, What?! Program, and Comerchero hopes he will soon be able to expand into the Watsonville area where the need is great. Food, What?! is a member of Rooted in Community—a national, grassroots network working for youth empowerment through gardening and food justice issues.
“Young people are craving meaning, and these are fundamental pieces,” he adds. “We could run a soccer program, but food is meaningful because everyone eats.”
Since the Monterey Bay area is such a hotbed of sustainable agriculture, it may seem that these programs are especially suited to our area. But there are dozens of them throughout the country, and some people think even more are needed here.
Jered Lawson, executive director of the 14-acre Pie Ranch in Pescadero, believes every high school should have its own farm and thinks just about any subject can be taught through agriculture. At Pie Ranch—also a member of Rooted in Community— about 1,000 students from three high schools visit the working farm each year. They learn valuable lessons about where and how food is grown by planting wheat and cover crops in the fall, harvesting citrus in winter and sowing seeds in the greenhouse in spring.
Subjects like English, math and American politics are also taught using the farm as a focus. “We look at national policies that shape our food system, like the fact that the SNAP (food stamp) program is threatened in Congress,” says Lawson. “We want students to think about the fact that they have a voice.”
During the summer, 15 students are selected for the Home Slice program, a paid job that includes leadership training and job skills experience. Students help with Pie Ranch’s CSA program and its weekend farm stand (Saturdays and Sundays noon–6pm).
“Our overall goal is to inspire people to be more excited about food and farming and to be more conscious members of society who use their dollars to support a healthier food system,” he says.
eborah Luhrman was once the Santa Cruz County bureau chief for Channel 46 news. She has been traveling the world and spending too much time on airplanes for the past 25 years. So she returned to Santa Cruz to grow a garden and write about local issues.