Legend has it that it was an apple’s fall that sparked the train of thought that led Isaac Newton to propose the law of universal gravitation. In 2009, an abundant windfall of excess apples in Rhode Island orchards prompted a different question in the minds of Farm Fresh RI program staff: Why not make applesauce? More specifically, why not find a way to use one challenge, an excess of local produce at certain times of the year, to address two others: the lack of value-added local products and a falling but still-too-high population of youth in the juvenile justice system facing a historically bad labor market. This idea, of turning excess crops into value-added local products while providing job training to an at-risk population, became the basis for Farm Fresh RI’s Harvest Kitchen Project.
PROGRAM DSEIGN & EVOLUTION
Project lead chef Jennifer Stott was hired by Farm Fresh RI in September 2009 and spent several months designing program curriculum, building community partnerships, and recruiting participants before launching the program as a pilot in early 2010. The program is structured in two parts: a 15-week training period followed by a five-week supported internship at a local food business. The training takes place 3:30 to 6:30 pm Monday through Thursday (as many participants are still in high school), and consists of three parts. The first five weeks are spent on basic job readiness: timeliness, personal presentation, kitchen skills and food safety—all participants must achieve ServSafe food handler certification. The second five weeks focus on retail sales training in preparation for selling at farmers markets. Participants have to be comfortable talking about the program, working with money, and able to sell product. The final five weeks focus on getting ready for internships and include resume preparation and review, and mock interviews. Each cohort is made up of eight students, ensuring each participant receives personalized instruction and support from program staff.
Although the core focus of the program hasn’t changed, the curriculum has evolved over time to include exposure to additional culinary knowledge, a greater emphasis on self-care, and more field-trips to local farms and other food related sites. There have also been multiple operational shifts as staff continued looking for the right product mix and production/teaching space. Initially held in the commissary space of a local bakery, in the summer of 2010 the program moved to the basement of Open Table of Christ Church on Broad Street in Providence. Unfortunately, this kitchen didn’t have a commercial license, so could be used only for teaching and recipe development, not production. In 2011 the program moved again, this time to Matthewson Street Church in downtown Providence, which did have a kitchen licensed by the RI Department of Health. The Harvest Kitchen Project produced its first marketable products in this space: applesauce, zucchini pickles, onion relish, apple chips, and stewed tomatoes. The downtown location was convenient for program participants, but as the program continued some of the drawbacks (no internet, limited storage and refrigeration) became constraints to further growth. In 2013 operations were shifted again to the former Classic Cafe on Pawtucket Avenue, which had much better facilities.
In the midst of these moves, program staff continued to look for opportunities to use the work program participants were doing to further support the Farm Fresh RI mission of strengthening the local food system. Summer recruitment was tough, so beginning in 2011, staff launched the “Harvest Kitchen All Stars,” which brought top-performing graduates of the program back as members of a seasonal production crew. With a more experienced team in the kitchen, staff were able to work with farmers to create other products from seasonal bounty, including dill pickles, dehydrated zucchini chips, dilly beans, spicy pickled carrots, and seasonal specials like canned peaches and onion relish. Starting in 2013, the project also began taking on co-packing work, beginning with a partnership with City Feed and Supply to produce pickled green tomatoes according to their recipe. In many cases, this was farmer driven, with area farmers contracting the team to make items like jarred stewed tomatoes for their farm stands and CSA shares, and to sell at winter farmers markets.
Not every effort has been an unqualified success. In 2013, staff partnered with AS220, a Providence youth-focused nonprofit that does music and art education, to recruit for the summer session. With the larger product line and the short season for some local crops, however, newcomers in the kitchen weren’t able to hit planned production targets. As part of a Farm to Cafeteria program piloted at the RI Training School in 2014, Harvest Kitchen staff attempted to process and freeze local vegetables for school dining services. While Stott saw market demand, the pilot was ultimately discontinued. The physical layout of the kitchen space (many locked doors, no pallet jack access) made material handling difficult. Because processing is all done manually to help participants build culinary skills, the kitchen simply didn’t have the capacity to serve the institutional needs.
What has been highly successful is the program’s integration with other Farm Fresh RI programs. The twelve farmers markets run by Farm Fresh RI provide a ready channel for year-round retail sales and give program participants a chance to build their sales skills while delivering on Farm Fresh RI’s objective of increasing access local food. Similarly, both Market Mobile (a wholesale farm-to-business distribution system launched in 2009) and Veggie Box (a produce delivery service launched in 2011 that delivers to workplaces and community centers) carry Harvest Kitchen products, providing wholesale channels that increase the project’s market. The result has been more youth jobs (in 2014 the program added four permanent part-time production crew positions, two more were added in 2016) and steady growth in Harvest Kitchen revenue.
THE HARVEST KITCHEN PROJECT TODAY
For a program that has called four different kitchens home in the last six years, 2016 brought a welcome change for the Harvest Kitchen Project. After completing another move in July, the program has found a new more permanent home in a renovated 700 square foot commercial kitchen in the mixed- use development at 2 Bayley Street in Pawtucket… (continued)