'The Tomato Project'
An appetite for instruction
MANCHESTER -- THE PINT JARS of tomato sauce being offered for sale at the Downtown Farmers Market at Victory Park are the fruits of an accelerated course in product development, production and marketing by high school age youths.
Seven young people are wrapping up their participation in the second year of the farm-to-table initiative that's been nicknamed "The Tomato Project."
There is a hefty dose of mentoring in the eight-week program that is coordinated by Jennifer Comeau and Mark Crandell of Child and Family Services' Runaway and Homeless Youth Program.
With help from experts at every stage, the young people in the program, who get a stipend and school credit, learn all aspects of taking a product from concept to point of sale.
"The biggest thing is learning the whole process," said Comeau.
And they do learn it hands-on.
"It made me appreciate farmers," said Kianni Hunt, 18, who like everyone in the program spent time working at area farms this summer.
Hunt, a Making Community Connections charter school student who plans to attend St. Anselm College and aims for a career in politics, was part of a tomato cutting and seeding assembly line one morning last week.
The line was needed and so were volunteers, because there were 11 bushels of heirloom and Roma tomatoes to cut, seed and chop in preparation for making sauce in huge kettles in the Beech Street School kitchen.
Boston University student Sarah Dolloff, 19, who is majoring in nutrition, is a volunteer who said she's learned "a lot about farming."
Because the money raised through the project funds things like driver education, yearbooks, prom and other school-related items for youths in the runaway and homeless program, getting donations of money and materials, as well as volunteer help, pays off on the bottom line.
Comeau said the students take on that responsibility, too.
Mohamed Daud, 19, who was in the program last year, said, "I brought four bushels of Romas from my mother's farm."
Daud, who will be studying to be an automotive tech at the New Hampshire Technical Institute, said he got a brief taste of what it could be like to be homeless. He said he was acting out and got kicked out of his house.
"I slept out one night," he said, and that was more than enough.
Chef Nicole Barreira, from Great New Hampshire Restaurants (T-Bones and Cactus Jack's) was part of the project last year and came back for more.
"I had a blast last year," Barreira said.
She said she teaches important kitchen skills, including knife safety. Almost on cue, one of the participants dropped a knife. Instead of grabbing for it and possibly being cut, she stepped back and let it fall to the floor, where it could be safely retrieved.
Barreira said she also teaches simple food preparation skills, showing how easy it is to make a fresh salsa, integrating what's on hand and tailoring it to a personal taste.
"Don't be pigeonholed by a recipe," she said.
Barreira can help in other ways, too.
"I have a degree in marketing as well," she said, which helped when it was time to design a logo for the sauce the young people called "SOL Sauce."
Choosing the recipe for the sauce was a learning opportunity for the program participants.
"A good, basic, yummy sauce," was the goal, said Barreira. But while individual students had preferences, she said, "We have to cook for who our consumer is."
That meant settling on a recipe the buyer could use "as is" or tweak for enhanced flavor.
Seventeen-year-old Kasadye McLaren, another MCC student, is enjoying some parts of the project whose participants met on Tuesdays and Thursdays for eight weeeks.
"I like hands-on work," she said, but she's definitely not there for the sauce. "I hate tomatoes," said McLaren, who wants to be a veterinarian.
McLaren isn't the only person in the program who isn't fond of tomatoes.
Shawn Pettus, 16, a student at Manchester High School West, said: "I can eat tomato sauce, but only if it's doctored," he said. Pettus is the only program participant interested in a food-related career.
His education goal is attending New York University to study business, and his business goal is opening a restaurant serving ethnic food in Savannah, Ga.
Pettus, who is originally from New York, said: "People take so much for granted."
At one time, he said, "I was on the verge of being homeless."
The project hit crunch time last week, with the sauce having to be cooked, canned and labeled. Last year, 175 pints were made and sold. This year the goal is 225 pints.
In addition to the Manchester and New Boston farmers markets, the sales plan involves word of mouth and advertising. Ray Garon of WZID assisted program participants in the creation of a radio commercial.
Because the project offers so many learning opportunities, Comeau would like to see the program expanded to allow participation by more than just youth who are homeless or at risk.
"So it's more of a summer enrichment program," she said.