It takes about five turns and four minutes to get from Nardin Academy to the headquarters of the Massachusetts Avenue Project on Grant Street (if you've parked on West Ferry and obeyed all traffic signs). For the past three years, five turns and four minutes are all that has separated me from an organization of motivated and incredibly inspiring teenagers who are making a difference in the community simply by showing up to work. If you, like me, have been not-so-blissfully unaware these past few years, it's time for that to change.
Begun in 2003, the Massachusetts Avenue Project is a youth-oriented program that strives to "nurture the growth of a diverse and equitable local food system and promote local economic opportunities, access to affordable, nutritious food and social change education." Each year since its inception, MAP has hired students ages 14 to 20 from the Buffalo Public Schools for its Growing Green program, which is centered around urban farming and aquaponics. MAP currently owns an acre of farmland on the West Side on which it has produced about 6,000 pounds of organic food, including 70 varieties of fruits, vegetables, fish and chicken; cultivated an environment of 25,000 tilapia; and composted 350,000 pounds of food. But that's only half the story.
Although the program is overseen and directed by adults, it is carried out entirely by students. The young employees of Growing Green are divided into three groups that have their own respective goals and responsibilities: the Farm Group, the Youth Enterprise Group and the Youth Policy Group. Together, the three groups accomplish everything necessary to run a business.
As Hussan Muse, a 16-year-old student at Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, relays, the members of the Farm Group have a difficult job. Not only are they expected to plant and maintain the farm, they also must feed the fish and chicken in addition to taking care of composting. Every week, food waste is collected from the Lexington Co-Op, Rich Products and the Erie Community College Culinary Department, and members of the Farm Group help turn the waste into organic fertilizer, which is used, in turn, to help grow their products. Somewhat surprisingly, their duties don't end with the departure of the warm weather.
"In the winter we work in a greenhouse and continue to feed the fish and chickens," Hussan said. The fish, available for purchase directly at the farm stand, are raised to be sold at local restaurants, so it is important for employees to take care of them throughout the year. The Farm Group consists of Hussan and three other employees who meet after school on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings, when they are occasionally joined by volunteers.
Patience Nimely, a senior at Bennett High School, loved working at the farm despite the hard work. "It brought back African memories," she shares, "and I like that I know where my food is coming from."
On the other hand, Tong Mawien, a 17-year-old student at Tapestry Charter School, was delighted to switch from the Farm Group to the Youth Enterprise Group.
"The farm was exhausting!" he says with a laugh. His new group has a slightly different responsibility. Tong and his co-workers handle the business aspect of the program; they make the products and labels, make and direct sales, and reach out to the community by way of a youth blog.
As Luke Friedman, a junior at Tapestry, said, "Right now, we have three food products: Super Duper Salsa, Amazing Chili Starter and Raspberry Apple Vinaigrette. Our goal is to have five products by the end of 2014."
They also sell flower pot mugs and T-shirts decorated with the Growing Green emblem. The Youth Enterprise employees work doggedly to market their products, directing sales to the community for festivals, health fairs and farmers' markets. The Super Duper Salsa and Amazing Chili Starter can be purchased at several local stores including Wegmans, the Lexington Co-Op, 10,000 Villages, Chateau Buffalo and Globe Market. (They hope to make the Raspberry Apple Vinaigrette available as well.)
The group also sells its products on the mobile market. Trucks are loaded with the aforementioned products and fresh food from the farm and driven to areas of the city where it might be difficult for residents to get to the grocery store. Organic and healthful, the food provided by MAP is aimed toward improving the diets and overall health of the community, and the proceeds from the sales allow the program to employ more youths, with the goal of improving more lives and opening more eyes. It's a cycle of rebirth, consideration and community awareness. The Enterprise Group works to inspire other local teenagers to participate by posting on its blog about everything from program events to protecting the environment.
"But we learn about business as well," Luke adds. "We've learned how to make business phone calls and how to make our business more efficient."
They have learned to question and consider every element of the development of a new product. Explains Zoe Hollomon, the group's markets director: "We try to come out with a new product every two years. We have to consider the cost of labor and materials; price can be an obstacle." In order to determine whether or not there will be a market for a new product, they cut down on certain expenses by using local ingredients and materials, which, as Zoe explains, "has both an economic and environmental benefit."
When it comes to designing labels for new products, the Youth Policy Group steps in. Working in conjunction with the Enterprise Group, they discuss what should be promoted and then begin creating the design.
Eric Alcosiba, a junior at Tapestry Charter School who was offered a job at MAP partly because of his artistic ability, is one member of the Policy Group.
"We're in the process of making a catalog/brochure," he said. "It will help make people more aware of the products."
Perhaps that is the goal of the entire program: to increase awareness – not only of what MAP is doing but of what people are consuming, how it is affecting them and how easy it is to change. These students are proof of what awareness can accomplish. MAP is hoping to remain local so that its profit and the nutritional benefit of their output remains in the community; if they do expand, it would only be as far as Rochester, Syracuse and upstate New York. Visitors are invited to tour the urban farm at 4 p.m. Tuesdays and 10:30 a.m. Saturdays. After the tour on Saturdays, visitors are invited to stay and volunteer until 1 p.m. People also can participate in the "Adopt a Bed" program. Vegetation beds can be "adopted" for $100, and as they grow, pictures and updates are sent to the "adoptive parents."
As the program's tagline says, "The revolution will be cultivated." These young students are bringing about change and improvement, and they love what they do.
Kuwu Kabah, a 17-year-old student at International Preparatory School, said, "I worked at MAP during the summer as part of the Mayor's Summer Youth Internship Program, and I liked the work so much that I applied to work during the year, and I was accepted."
The other employees are quick to concur; each one loves coming to work and being part of the MAP "family."
Paul Douth, a 17-year-old Hutchinson Central Technical High School student, is proud of his involvement with the program.
"I live down the street from the farm, Paul says. "My neighbors know that I work there, and now they think it's a cool organization. Even if people don't change their lifestyles, they can be more aware of what they're eating."
Patience sums it up: "MAP teaches you how to farm, maintain business, get involved in the environment, and reach out to people. We're a family."