It’s 8 a.m. on a balmy Monday in July, but the team arriving at Kingsbury High School doesn’t need coffee to help waking up. They’ve got plenty of youth and passion to fuel them. These students are budding gardeners and entrepreneurs who are working this summer to launch Shelby County Schools' first farmers market organized and run by the students themselves. The coalition of organizers and educators advising the students hopes they learn what it takes to run a business and how they can begin addressing some of the greatest challenges in the Graham Heights community.
The 11 students are part of Real Food Lab, a program that walks students through the design of their own food-based business. Launched by nonprofit Big Green in Spring of 2018, the program includes lessons on budgeting, marketing, investing and more. Students learn from field trips and guest speakers and end the program with a six-week summer practicum to produce a viable business plan.
But more than just a theoretical business endeavor, Kingsbury’s student entrepreneurs are getting a unique opportunity to put their plan into action with a one-day farmers market pilot on July 28 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
“It’s hands-on business aspects, so hopefully they walk away with a grasp of what it really takes to run a business,” said James Ritter, who has been a teacher at Kingsbury High for the past 13 years. He is also the founder of the school’s garden program and faculty advisor for the 40-member garden club.
Student entrepreneurs Angie Vega (L) and Kimberly Rodriguez Moreno (R) work with Big Green's garden educator Karen Hess (C) to install bamboo stakes in one of the open air beds. (Cole Bradley)
Students with the Real Food Lab also spend time tending the school’s learning gardens to more deeply understand the roots of food-based businesses. After 50 hours of classroom and hands-on work, the students earn a $500 stipend.
Located along the 1200 block of Graham Street, Kingsbury is one of the few Memphis-area schools with all three tiers of learning (elementary, middle, high school) within walking distance, and each branch of Kingsbury has its own learning garden. The density of planting space makes the school ideal for the experimental farmers market.
“The idea was to create a market from all the produce. Kingsbury high school, middle school, as well as the elementary school combined forces,” said Andrea Jacobo, a community health extension agent for UT Extension.
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In 2016, Jacobo had an idea for a school-based farmers market to advance UT Extension’s focus on physical and social health, but she wasn’t the only one working in that arena.
The Farm to School program, which is an effort to connect local students with farmers to promote agriculture and improve student nutrition, launched its first SCS learning gardens roughly ten years ago.
Colorada-based Big Green, formerly known as The Kitchen Community, arrived in Memphis in 2015. According to Big Green garden educator Karen Hess, the organization now manages 110 school garden programs in partnership with SCS, Achievement and Jubilee charter school systems, as well as a few private schools. Other key partners include the Wolf River Conservancy, Clean Memphis and Memphis Area Master Gardeners.
“We’re all coming together to help the students and help the community move forward in their health and their wellbeing,” Jacobo said of the collaboration that came from their shared vision.
Big Green and the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship are also responsible for piloting the Real Food Lab at Kingsbury, Ridgeway, and Whitehaven high schools.
At Kingsbury High, the garden program started in 2013 when Ritter sought support from SCS and Lowe’s Toolbox for Education program for the school’s first ten 4 foot-by-6 foot cinder block fruit and vegetable beds in part of an unused courtyard.
In the five years since, the high school has added a hoop house garden and a second open air garden for produce and herbs. A partnership with Wolf River Conservancy transformed the remainder of the grassy, vacant courtyard into a peaceful oasis of benches and paths shaded by native trees and surrounded by beautiful flowers specifically chosen to nourish native butterflies, bees, and birds, who then help pollinate the food gardens.
Kingsbury added the elementary school garden in 2016 and middle school garden in early 2017.
With multiple working gardens and the Real Food Lab training program in place, the conditions were right in 2018 to pilot the market concept. Aside from fitting well with the curriculum, there was a clear need for gardening and a market in the area.
Student entrepreneur Barak Muhammad makes gardening a family affair as he explains how to use a garden claw to his younger brother. (Cole Bradley)
Graham Heights is the diverse neighborhood located roughly in the borders of Summer Avenue to the south, Graham Street to the west, Chelsea Avenue on the north, and Stratford Road and Wells Station Road to the east. It's a majority-minority community facing increasing poverty rates. Residents are more susceptible to physical and mental health conditions and may have limited access to fresh foods and business opportunities, all concerns a market could help address.
Gardening provides many mental health benefits for students. Student entrepreneur Barak Muhammad said gardening certainly improves his state of mind.
“It just helps me think. When I’m gardening, it clears my mind,” said the soon-to-be sophomore. Muhammad is one of five children and always takes a big bag of produce home to his family on days he tends the garden.
A learning garden also allows for experimentation often limited by poverty and food insecurity. According to the Mid-South Food Bank, over 20 percent of the city’s youth are food insecure, a figure that increases in low-income neighborhoods like the one Kingsbury serves. Food insecurity often means predictable choices, as there’s no room for error with new tastes or techniques.
“We made smoothies with kale in them [to show] how to incorporate some greens into something that tastes good,” said Ritter.
They learned how to saute swiss chard, fried green tomatoes, and make fresh bruschetta. According to Ritter, the act of growing food improves the diet of even picky eaters.
“If they grow them, they’ll eat them. They’ll at least try them,” he said.
Rising juniors and student entrepreneurs Angie Vega and Kimberly Rodriguez Moreno said they’ve gained confidence in experimentation and seeing the success of a long-term commitment. They describe a deep emotional attachment to the plants, like parents to a child.
“I’m mostly excited about seeing the progress. We planted some things in the middle school garden that are ours, we’re taking care of it, and it’s amazing how fast they grow,” said Vega.
Most importantly, a garden and market could have a major impact on the nutritional health and economic vitality of the neighborhood.
Tennessee’s kids are the most overweight in the country, with twenty percent of high school students classified as obese. Shelby County has one of the highest rates of obesity in the state, and risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other major health concerns increases in majority-minority, low-income neighborhoods where nutritious food and transportation are limited.
“It’s awesome that we can have [the market] right in the middle of this community … for everyone,” said Ritter.
A bumble bee rests on a native plant in Kingsbury's courtyard pollinator garden. The dark yellow, almost brown pollen is clearly visible on the bee's legs. (Cole Bradley)
More than just food and business, the student entrepreneurs are learning about these larger struggles and how they can affect positive change.
“This is a form of resiliency. We really want to cultivate a culture ... so they can understand the importance of getting involved in what they see [now and] in the future,” said Jacobo.
She says the big idea is to teach students how to produce food from inside the neighborhood for greater access and self-sufficiency and how to use their business skills to grow their efforts. Those students then mentor their families and younger students for a whole-community impact.
“Yeah it’s a garden, yeah we’re trying to create a farmers market, but what is the end goal for the students? ...Mentorship, peer modeling, and learning collectively the importance of going back to good food in their environment and community,” said Jacobo.
There’s evidence the strategy is already working.
Vega and Rodriguez Moreno’s faces light up when they talk about the research they’ve been doing on pollution reduction and the use of smart gardening in urban areas. They also talk about a change at their homes.
“I told my dad we’re growing tomatoes and learning this so he went to the store and bought some tomato plants and now they’re growing,” said Rodriguez Moreno.
“My sister was also in [the garden club] and told me how much Mr. Ritter cared about it and took care of the garden. And I wanted to make my own food,” Vega said of her motivation to join the club and, subsequently, Real Food Lab.
Students and parents also regularly take food home from the garden to share with their families. Ritter recalls a student telling him that her mother picked all the cilantro.
“I said, ‘That’s awesome! Eat it!’...Anyone from the community could walk in here, pick something, and leave. That would be ok. It’s a true community garden,” he said.
The group formed committees and set to work tackling every aspect of the market, including financing, marketing, and operations.
Andrea Jacobo leads the student entrepreneurs in an exercise t o rework their business goals after Kingsbury High learned that due to insurance requirements, they could not sell their produce at the upcoming farmers market. (Cole Bradley)
To keep with the mission of accessible food for the whole community, the market would accept SNAP food assistance vouchers and prices would be lower than other area markets. In addition to the market, the student entrepreneurs planned to attract local vendors to sell their goods, give garden tours, and host health fair and 5K race for a full day’s worth of activity. Profits would go to fund future markets, field trips, and other educational and professional development opportunities.
Unfortunately, in late June organizers received devastating news. The school didn’t have proper insurance to sell the produce, so the fare could only be given away to SCS students, staff, and their families.
Rather than cancel the event, the team set to work revising their plan and framing the setback as an opportunity to practice flexibility, a critical skill in any startup.
They would continue with the plan of having vendors, tours, a health fair and 5K race, and would simply give away their farmers market vegetables for free. The team is now preparing for a ‘Christmas in July’ craft sale, selling handmade holiday wreaths and other decorative items to make up for the loss in profit. They’re also creating a new marketing strategy and a system to track how much they would have made in produce sales to inform future efforts.
“I’m happy about those bumps because whenever you get a bump in the road, you wipe yourself off and keep going,” said Jacobo.
It’s also an opportunity to contribute to official decisions on school gardening and markets going forward.
All of the collaborators note that administrators at every level of SCS have been supportive of the market project, and this was simply an unexpected consequence of being the first to blaze the trail. Now that they’ve identified the problem, everyone can work together to solve it for future markets.
In the meantime, they’re planning for the upcoming market pilot and planning big for the future. The team would love to see a farmers market with regular hours that affords students a real-world opportunity to run a business and improve food access.
“The big lessons is that what we’re doing is different...The only way we can really make [it work] is by creating a different wheel and rolling with it,” said Jacobo.
The student entrepreneurs hope that on July 28, community members will roll on down to their market, enjoy the festivities and free fresh produce, and be inspired to learn gardening too.
“It’s really amazing. They’re going to feel something they’ve never felt and eat something they made,” said Rodriguez Moreno before she and Vega hurried back to their group to eat their freshly picked cucumbers and discuss their social media strategy for the promoting market.