Salad days

by by Katie Lindstedt

It’s three o’clock on Monday, January 8, and school is still in session for the five students present at today’s Harvest Kitchen class. Cookbooks and notebooks are scattered along a table. On the whiteboard, Jennifer Stott—“Chef Jen” to her students—has listed different measurement quantities: tablespoons, teaspoons, cups, and so on. The chairs are empty as the students hover around a fruit salad they have just prepared, joking about food allergies and expressing their distastes. Nineteen-year-old Monica doesn’t want any blackberries in her yogurt-fruit-granola concoction.

On January 25, Farm Fresh Rhode Island—a nonprofit that supports the state’s local food system—and the Department of Children, Youth and Families’ (DCYF) Division of Juvenile Corrections launched the Harvest Kitchen Project, a fifteen-week training program that will teach youth currently on probation to prepare preserved foods. The students will use ingredients from local farms and sell the products at local stores, farmers markets, and to area schools and hospitals.

According to John Scott, the DYCF Community Liaison and a project manager of the program, the Department “has been trying to build inroads to employment opportunities for youth who are on probation.” Around the same time, Farm Fresh Rhode Island approached the DYCF and expressed interest in creating food products that the juvenile corrections population could prepare.

Monday through Wednesday, the students attend the Harvest Kitchen Food Production Training from 2:00 to 5:00PM at a space Farm Fresh Rhode Island rents within the Pastry Gourmet Commissary in Providence. On Thursdays from 3:30 to 6:30, the students work with a different chef at a space in AS220 to prepare for the Serve-Safe Food Managers National Certification. The Tuesday and Thursday sessions will run until May 4 and March 4, respectively, at which point the students will have the skills and knowledge to work in the prepared foods industry.

Farm Fresh Rhode Island and the Department of Children, Youth and Families joined forces to write a grant for the program, which is funded by the Rhode Island Foundation and the US Department of Justice Byrne IAG.
Anyone who is on probation in the state, between the ages of 16 and 19, and committed to working with Rhode Island Harvest Kitchen is eligible for the program, which offers stipends to the students. Each student will receive a weekly stipend of $100 and a $200 completion bonus. Exemplary trainees will be asked to continue as an Assistant to the Chef Instructor for fifteen weeks after the program ends and receive a weekly stipend of $125.00.

“We wanted to create job-like experiences where kids can be stipened and build up their resumes,” Scott said. He noted that the program fosters “a safe and nurturing environment where a kid can learn how to work.”
Scott said that the kids who have just finished their sentences at the Rhode Island Training School—the state’s only juvenile detention facility, located in Cranston—almost always identify employment as “one of the most important things to them.”

But he added, “I don’t think they understand what that means, and the responsibilities that employment entails. They may not have necessarily developed the life skills and soft skills to be successful in the work force.”

Harvest Kitchen is part of Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s broader Open Kitchen Project, a response to the diminished presence of local farms and food processing sites over the past few decades. The Open Kitchen Project aims to increase processing infrastructure for locally grown foods and “expand the diversity of Rhode Island-produced foods using local ingredients,” according to the organization’s official website.

Many local farmers want to produce non-perishable products from their farms but lack access to a certified kitchen and are too busy to cook during the growing season. If a farmer wants to produce a product, they must get a farm home kitchen license from their state’s department of health. But, as Christie Moulton, Outreach Director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, explained, such licenses are not easy to obtain. If a farm’s water comes from a well, it is not deemed state-regulated water and prevents the farmer from obtaining the necessary license. Open Kitchen links these farmers to a certified kitchen and people who want to process food, transforming what would otherwise be an overabundance of perishable produce into non-perishable goods.

Through Harvest Kitchen, local farmers from Rhode Island and Massachusetts sell their excess produce to Farm Fresh Rhode Island.

“Some of the farmers don’t have time to do anything with their excess produce, so this will be beneficial to them. They don’t have to worry about losing money because they have fruits and vegetables that are rotting on the vine,” Stott said. “It’s an opportunity for them to sell as much as they can.”

Stott and her students are creating a few different recipes for applesauce that they will sell at Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Winter Farmer’s Market in Pawtucket. Harvest Kitchen will conduct a tasting of the various recipes and a survey to determine which one to produce. After that, Harvest Kitchen will make “tomato sauce or salsa, depending on what farmers have excess of,” Stott said.

She noted that producers who already sell their own products have also approached Harvest Kitchen. A woman who roasts pecans but has no health department-certified kitchen talked to Farm Fresh Rhode Island about collaborating.

Harvest Kitchen is a classic example of a mutually beneficial relationship. The program not only endows local farmers with increased revenue, but also provides its youth workers with practical, hands-on job training. If attendance is any indication of enthusiasm, it’s safe to say the students have already enjoyed the fruits—and fruit salads—of their labor.

During the second week of classes, on Wednesday, February 3, “all of the students were five minutes early to class,” Stott raved. “To me that was a huge response. A lot of them take the bus and walk; it’s hard for them to get to class, so that was a great moment.”

Stott noted that although none of the kids have been negative about the program, “a lot of them were just nervous about starting. They were more curious about what this program was going to mean to them as far as their commitment.”

Stott, who has owned a catering business for about fifteen years, is also the culinary instructor at Tide Family Services, an agency for troubled youth.

She hopes cooking will provide her students with professional aspirations. “A lot of the kids aren’t really college-bound, so I try to tell them cooking is something you can do anywhere in the world. If you have these skills, you can get a job anywhere. It’s a worldwide profession.”

The applicability of culinary skills is a cornerstone of the program. Scott considered Rhode Island’s range of food-related employment opportunities before launching Harvest Kitchen.

“The food service industry happens to be one of the areas of potential growth in Rhode Island,” he said.

During the first three weeks of class, Stott has tried to familiarize the students with basic kitchen skills and equipment.

“We’re just getting them into the routine of coming every day and getting them confident in their new space,” she said.

Judging by the pleas for Alfredo lessons and carpool offers, confidence and camaraderie have already developed in the kitchen.

Katie Lindstedt B’11 is tossed and dressed.