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Salsa Business

Real-life fields of study

By Laurel Rosenhall - lrosenhall@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PST Saturday, December 22, 2007

Room 46 at Grant High School was a flurry of activity after school this week. At one table, students measured huge swaths of cellophane and wrapped up colorful gift baskets. At another table, a group tallied the proceeds. And across the room, a boy documented how many gift baskets the class had sold on a big piece of poster board.

But this wasn't an ordinary school fundraiser.

Students in the program known as GEO – for Grant Environmental Organization – were packaging and selling jars of salsa and pasta sauce that they produce. The tomato-based products are part of an unusual school program that links lessons in gardening, science, nutrition and business economics.

"It's an opportunity for them to see how school happens in the real world," said Ann Marie Kennedy, the teacher who runs the after-school class.

Students work in teams focused on sales, marketing, finance and operations. They pitch their wares to local stores and sell them to shoppers at farmers markets. Today they'll be peddling their goods from a booth at the Davis Farmers Market.

Selling at the farmers markets used to be intimidating for Grant student Jonathan Maestas, 16. He feared he wouldn't know what to say to customers, so – the night before going to market – he'd scour a cheat sheet with information about the products and the program.

"I used to be shy," Maestas said. "Now I could go out there and just wing it."

What does he say to his inquisitive customers?

"I tell them we're from the Del Paso Heights community, I'm a student at Grant High School, and we have a garden on campus that we maintain."

The student-run salsa business started in 2003 when a group of Grant students wanted to start a business with the produce they grew in their school garden. They were inspired by Food From the Hood, a program at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. In the 1990s, Crenshaw students began producing salad dressing to sell with their vegetables.

The Grant students weren't sure what they wanted to make, recalls Fatima Malik, who was a sophomore when the effort began. They thought about hot sauce. Pondered pesto. Then they got a grant from the city to work with a food scientist and develop recipes.

The students settled on two different types of salsa – traditional and spicy peach – and a three pepper pasta sauce. And then came the first lesson in agricultural economics.

"We didn't have enough land to grow all the vegetables," said Malik, who is now 21 and a senior at UC Davis. "So we partnered with a local grower."

The school teamed up with a tomato farmer in Winters and a bottling company in Sonoma. Jars of salsa and sauce started rolling out, with "Eat from the Garden" labels.

At first, students just sold the products on campus. They added the Del Paso Heights farmers market and then the Co-op stores in Davis and Sacramento. At holiday time, students sell gift baskets with chips, salsa, pasta and sauce to agencies that work with youths.

As the business of producing and selling the items has grown, students have learned about supply and demand, profit margins, sales techniques and market research. They're considering marketing their salsa for Super Bowl weekend and whether they can package a single serving of salsa and chips to sell on campus.

The students sell enough product each year to pay for the next year's batch and make about $5,000 in profit each year, Kennedy said, which is turned back to the kids in the form of college scholarships.

Even though the products are not made at school, students stay connected to the manufacturing process and the agricultural rhythm. They visit the Winters tomato farm twice a year, in the early fall for harvest and in the spring for planting. Each winter they make a trip to Sonoma to see where their salsa is bottled.

While school gardens have become common – the state Department of Education estimates that about 40 percent of California schools now have them – programs that use gardens to teach business principles remain rare, said Deborah Beall, a consultant with the department.

Most school garden programs do what the Grant class does four days a week, when it's not working on the salsa business – use the garden as a place to teach environmental science and nutrition. With vegetables they've grown in their garden, Grant students make weekly meals of Vietnamese pho with green onions and carrots; salads of lettuce and peas; or stir fry with broccoli.

The class is supported by grants from United Way and a partnership with the Health Education Council. Kaiser recently awarded the school funds to build a kitchen in a classroom next to the garden.

The GEO program is so popular with students that Grant graduates come back to help keep it going.

"It gives you the ability to feel like you're doing something important," said Malik, one of the students who started the salsa business five years ago.

"It helps you boost your self-esteem. Students have something that they're a part of."