FOOD FROM THE ’HOOD

FOOD FROM THE ’HOOD

From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Food from the ’Hood

Success is when your cup runneth over and your saucer too!

Nathaniel Bronner Sr.

I was in junior high school when the verdict came out: The four policemen filmed beating Rodney King were acquitted. South Central Los Angeles exploded in riots. I was outraged at the looting and burning that took over our city. I thought, Why burn your own neighborhood?

At the age of fourteen, I had experienced some tumultuous times myself. There were times I didn’t know where my next meal would come from, but I had never been driven to the point of violence. The events of that spring made no sense to me.

The next fall I enrolled at Crenshaw High School, one of the most notoriously gang-ridden high schools in South Central L.A. One day, my biology teacher, Tammy Bird, asked a few students to meet her during lunch hour. She introduced us to Melinda McMullen, a business executive who was looking for a way to help rebuild our community. Together, they proposed that we turn the abandoned plot of land behind our classroom into an organic garden. With Ms. Bird offering extra credit and Melinda offering pizza, it was an offer too good to refuse.

For the next few weeks, about a dozen of us spent our time after school cutting down the weeds in the garden, most of them taller than we were. The ground was so hard and dry that we had to take an extra Saturday to prepare the soil. Then we planted herbs and vegetables. Before long, we were growing more than we could eat—so the idea of selling our bounty was a natural.

In September 1993, we held our first official business meeting. We named ourselves “Food from the ’Hood” and decided to use our profits to fund college scholarships.

That April, we took our vegetables to Santa Monica’s Farmers’ Market, which is in a pretty ritzy part of Los Angeles. At first we felt out of place. People ignored us. I don’t think that they knew what to make of a bunch of Latino and African American teenagers at a vegetable stand touting “Food from the ’Hood.” Finally, one of the guys bounced out of the booth and walked up to people saying, “Hi, I’m Ben Osborne from Crenshaw High. We’ve grown some organic veggies that are just too good to pass up!” People started buying our produce like crazy. For the rest of the school year, we had sell-out weekends.

But even with the success of our farmers’ markets, we ended the school year with a profit of only six hundred dollars to put toward the scholarships. (Farming is so expensive!) It was clear we had to find an additional route to profits if we wanted to go to college. That’s when we decided to go into the salad dressing business. After all, as my friend Karla Becerra said, “We grow ingredients for salads, so why not make what goes on top?”

Our next step was to develop a recipe. Our first priority: low sodium. High blood pressure is a serious issue among minorities in our community. Our second priority: low fat. We wanted to make people healthy, as well as make money!

That December, we had a tremendous surprise. Rebuild L.A., a nonprofit organization formed out of the riots, gave us startup funding of fifty thousand dollars. Armed with our seed money, we found someone to manufacture our dressing and made our first large batch. We also used the money to buy office equipment and set up shop in a storage room near the garden. Also, we hired Aleyne Larner, one of our adult volunteers, to be the company’s full-time advisor.

I’ll never forget our first sales call. It was with the senior vice president of Vons, one of the largest grocery store chains in California. The room was full of men in suits and us—a group of kids from South Central! We told them about our product and how well it would sell, and they agreed to stock it. Other large grocery chains also decided to carry our dressing.

On April 29, 1994, on the second anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising, we announced to the community that Food from the ’Hood’s Straight Out of the Garden salad dressing was available in two thousand supermarkets. No one had ever dreamed we could be so successful.

Soon after that, we heard that England’s Prince Charles would be visiting Los Angeles. Carlos Lopez, our fourteen-year-old PR manager, wrote and invited him to visit us. We didn’t know it at the time, but Prince Charles is a huge fan of organic gardening and has his own company that helps build economic empowerment in the inner cities of England. No one thought that he would come. But a few weeks later, we received a call from a representative of the British consulate saying, “The prince would be delighted.”

Three weeks before the prince was scheduled to arrive, our office was vandalized. All of our computer equipment, fax machines and telephones were stolen or destroyed. Some of us burst out crying. But Ben said, “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” We decided to come back stronger than ever. Many people from the community helped with repairs, and a few businesses donated money to replace the stolen equipment. Our school district even donated a telephone. We were back in business.

The day of the prince’s visit finally came. I shook hands with the Prince of Wales! Karla, who used to be really shy, showed him around our garden. There were lots of reporters trying to crowd around, but Prince Charles waved them back and said, “I’m afraid you’re trampling on their lettuce.” He had lunch with us and ate an entire plate of salad with our salad dressing on it. Then he said, “Your garden is truly remarkable.” After the prince’s visit, the British consulate gave us a gift: a company delivery truck. We call it the Chuck Wagon.

Today, Food from the ’Hood is ten years old and the biggest success ever seen at Crenshaw High School. Our salad dressings—we now have three flavors—are sold in grocery and natural food stores in twenty-three states. To date, we’ve had more than 120 student-owners participate in Food from the ’Hood. Most have gone on to pursue higher education. This year, many of us are graduating from colleges all over the United States, including UC Berkeley, Stanford and San Diego State.

I feel like I owe a lot to that quarter-acre plot in back of my old classroom. We all do. The garden is where it all started. Ms. Bird always said one of the most important things about gardening is composting—how you can take leftovers and garbage and turn them into fertile soil for growing great things. Well, truer words were never spoken. I’ve never seen a bigger waste than the riots—and look what great things we grew out of that!

Jaynell Grayson

More stories from our partners