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Inner-City Garden Thrives

October 9, 1998

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ They were the butt of jokes around Crenshaw High, taunted by classmates at the inner-city school for hoeing a plot of dirt blanketed with six-foot high weeds in a far corner of the campus.

But the students of Food From The Hood persisted. Their toiling at the height of the hype following the 1992 riots grabbed national headlines and the attention of everyone from the mayor to TV talk shows to Prince Charles.

It was the perfect post-riot story: South Central kids growing vegetables and spices and selling them to earn money for college.

Today, the television cameras and dignitaries are nowhere to be found. But Food From The Hood is, well, still growing.

And the jokes are now few and far between.

``These students aren’t extraordinary. What’s extraordinary is that they’re in this program,″ said FFTH executive director Aleyne Larner.

What started out as a simple garden on a couple of acres has literally blossomed into a student-owned business that sells three kinds of salad dressing and has a franchise in New York that sells flavored applesauce. Apart from the business, the students also get tutoring, SAT preparation and a national tour of historically black colleges.

All but three of the program’s 66 graduates are currently attending college. And those three, from the first graduating class, are making plans to return to college.

Asija Chappel makes no apologies for the reason she applied for student ownership in FFTH a year ago: money for college.

But she’s gotten much more.

``You’re a part of something. You’re not wasting your time. You’re getting something accomplished,″ Ms. Chappel said.

Her conversations about invoices, paying bills, her dreams of becoming a forensic pathologist belie her 17 years.

``I thought, ‘I’m just going to be here, answer a few letters.’ But we’re actually running the business. I’m responsible for something. I OWN something,″ Ms. Chappel said.

The caption accompanying the photo in the Crenshaw High yearbook puts it this way: ``It’s a company, not a club.″

Crenshaw High students must apply to be a student owner at Food From The Hood, which incorporated in 1993. Current student owners review applications and conduct interviews, and then by consensus, hire new student owners as they, themselves, move on.

They also are required to attend SAT prep classes conducted by a college professor who volunteers his time, and work at least seven hours a week at the company.

Time at the prep classes and hours working at FFTH are tallied into points, which upon graduation translate into dollars. The average student owner earns between $2,000 to $3,000, which is deposited into a college trust fund. To date, FFTH has raised more than $110,000 for students’ college expenses.

And like any business, students set revenue goals and plan the year to schedule sales at local farmer’s markets, attend business expos and offer taste tests at supermarkets.

In April 1994, FFTH produced its first salad dressing _ creamy Italian _ on store shelves. The next year, due to customer demand, they offered a low fat creamy Italian and in 1996 came out with honey mustard.

There is also the franchise in Ithaca, N.Y., Food From The Hood-East, which produces three Straight Out The Orchard applesauces. FFTH products can be found in about 2,000 stores in 26 states. And they’re working on franchises in Hawaii, Chicago and Philadelphia.

``It’s OK that people buy us for the first time to support us. But we don’t want pity,″ said Cesar Bravo, 19, who earned $5,000 for college and currently attends Cal Poly Pomona. He also continues as an adviser to FFTH. ``We want people to buy our product again and again because it tastes good.″

Bravo favors the creamy Italian and suggests the honey mustard be used more as a sauce for dipping french fries or spreading on hamburgers. Sales pitch aside, he says there’s more to FFTH than the money.

``We’re just trying to show the community and the world that there is hope for youth, and give them positive stereotypes,″ he said.

Though the garden itself does not play such a large part in the salad dressing business, it is still an integral part of the Food From The Hood program and its mission to give back to the community.

Some FFTH produce is donated to soup kitchens, and men from a local shelter have been hired to help with handiwork.

Students also care for a few farm animals, including chickens, a dog, a rabbit, ducks and Murphy the pot bellied pig.

Terry Wilson, 15, one of the few student owners hired as a ninth-grader, said he had a rough time at the beginning.

``I was breaking this, destroying that. I didn’t know how to plant. I remember putting a whole packet of seeds in one pot,″ Wilson said, laughing along with his co-owners. ``Now I know better.″

In his second year here, he’s looking forward to giving FFTH ``nothing but my hard work.″

``After school, if I just go home, I watch TV. I wouldn’t learn stuff. But if I come here, I can read a book, learn on the computer,″ Wilson said.

The garden has also become somewhat of a rallying point for the community. The school has donated the land, Prince Charles gave a van, and other donations include advertising and water from city firefighters.

``I went into this not knowing what to expect,″ said co-founder and Crenshaw High science teacher Tammi Bird. ``But every time I turn a corner, I find something phenomenal.″

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