Feeding the Community and Growing a Business

The smell of chocolate cinnamon cake wafts from the ovens as thirty-three seventh and eighth graders file in through the door. In early April, we visited the Growing Leaders business elective class at Willard in which students prepare and sell bi-monthly meals to the community made largely with ingredients grown at the school site. It’s “Packing Day”, when the students pack all the food they have made to distribute to hungry customers that evening, and the air is humming with excitement.

The students arrive and immediately wash their hands and to get to work. Matt Tsang, program founder, classroom teacher and the Schools Fund’s 2015 Educator of the Year, gets the class’ attention and explains the various jobs that need to get done that day—everything from folding empanadas to packaging. Folding empanadas is clearly the job that the majority of students want, but job assignments are done randomly by picking popsicle sticks labeled with each task.

Assigning jobs is just one of the many decisions made democratically in the Growing Leaders class. Everything from pricing to marketing is decided through majority vote where the adults often get overruled. Just last November, students voted to raise the prices of their meals by a dollar and wrote a letter to customers explaining how “raising the price will bring in enough money to buy new appliances such as ovens, gardening tools and a working refrigerator.”

The students learn financial literacy and entrepreneurship through the direct experience of planting, harvesting, cooking and selling. Meals are sold through Josephine, a local startup that sells meals prepared by home cooks, and all of the proceeds go back to support the program. Being involved and empowered in every aspect of decision-making makes this more than just a class for many, but a business they feel ownership of. Phoenix, an eighth grade student, explains, “I like Growing Leaders because I feel like I’m part something bigger than myself; I feel like I’m part of a community here.”

It’s a busy day for students as they fold empanadas, pack containers full of salad greens from the garden, and wrap the chocolate cinnamon cake which will serve as dessert for the night’s meal. When the salad crew finishes early, they go and help fold empanadas. Marla, a cooking instructor, gushes, “The students are amazing! They’re so mature and they come in early and stay late to help set up and clean the tables and floors.”

The students work quickly—250 empanadas are folded, dishes are washed, and tables are all set. The students sit around tables with plates, cutlery and a mason jar of flowers from the garden set out for a communal meal. Hairnets are taken off and students tuck into a well-deserved meal of salad, empanada and cake. The familial feeling is palpable not only during the shared meal but even afterwards as students wash their own dishes and grab brooms to tidy up this space that belongs to all of them.

Growing Leaders is a thriving program that has doubled in size over the past year and it depends entirely on community support. They always have a list of equipment needs to be fulfilled. If they don’t have a Friends and Family grant posted, you can also donate on their website.