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An Urban Garden Nurtures Hope--and a Business Model

Entrepreneurship: A student-run food company thrives 10 years after arising from the L.A. riots.

April 29, 2002|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a verdant Westside sanctuary--a world away from the rocky soil of South-Central Los Angeles--Dennis Fomond tills land that will yield basil, peppers, string beans and other crops.

Fomond, 26, is an O.G.--not an original gangster but one of half a dozen "original gardeners" who planted a seed in a weed-choked lot behind Crenshaw High School after the 1992 riots and helped launch Food From the 'Hood.

That seed has grown, 10 years later, into one of the most successful student-run companies in the country, based on revenue and longevity, experts on youth entrepreneurship said.

The students began by selling vegetables locally and expanded to sell salad dressing at supermarket chains nationwide including Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Safeway stores. Expected revenue this year: $250,000.

Although he graduated long ago, Fomond returns regularly to help nurture a new crop of student managers.

The garden--the symbolic heart of the program--moved this year to a plot at the Veterans Administration complex in Westwood from its longtime home at Crenshaw High, where the program was founded in October 1992.

Today, the nonprofit organization maintains an office at a business incubator about two miles from the high school in South Los Angeles. The group contracts with local manufacturers to produce its Straight Out 'the Garden salad dressing, which provides most of the revenue.

Food From the 'Hood was among the first forays into what has become a nationwide movement to deliver entrepreneurial training to inner-city youths.

The aims: to develop future business owners and show that, given the opportunity, central-city teens can do more than riot and sell something other than drugs.

"Food From the 'Hood paved the way for getting people to think about how to do a product that kids from an urban area could sell nationally. And that's no easy task," said Steve Mariotti, president of the New York-based National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

"Millions of low-income people are never exposed to [business] ownership principles," Mariotti said. "The ones who most need to know are the least likely to have that exposure. Food From the 'Hood showed what can happen."

Participants receive adult guidance--initially by Tammy Bird, the Crenshaw biology teacher whose vision helped launch the program, and today by Monique Hunter, who joined as a board member in 2000 and last year took over as the salaried executive director.

But at Food From the 'Hood, the students call the shots.

The Crenshaw High students, ages 14 to 18, handle everything from negotiating with vendors to signing off on a new salad dressing recipe, Hunter said.

Program Branches Into Retailing

In 1994, the program expanded from the student-run garden to begin producing Straight Out 'the Garden dressing, which has become the true cash crop.

Half the proceeds from dressing sales fund college scholarships, which students earn by working in the program and accumulating points that can be converted to dollars. As of June, 77 students had graduated from the program, earning a collective $177,000 in scholarships (about $2,300 on average).

Hunter said she wishes it could be more. But when sales suffer--as they have since 1998--so do scholarships.

The program remains dependent on a fluctuating flow of government and foundation grants to augment income and keep operating. Some awards, such as a $150,000 grant announced this month by the Merrill Lynch Foundation, fund specific goals, including the promotion of financial education. Others help pay the salaries of Hunter and other staffers.

Beyond that, the program relies on continuing input from Fomond and fellow O.G.s.

On a recent sun-drenched Saturday, gardening tools at the ready, he walked the bumpy path from a rest area to the group's 15-by-30-foot plot at the Veterans Administration complex. The students get to use the land in exchange for assisting VA gardening projects.

The yield from the efforts of Fomond and other gardeners is used in taste-test demonstrations for the dressing or is donated to homeless shelters. (Produce from the garden was never used in the dressing but until recently was sold at farmers markets.)

Fomond, a beefy and affable father of two young girls, studied for two years at UC Berkeley after graduating from high school.

He had always fancied himself a linebacker. But at Berkeley, his emphasis shifted from the NFL toward learning more about African American business.

"Food From the 'Hood influenced that," said Fomond, a student owner in the program from 1992 to 1994.

"We actually went into stores and talked to corporate buyers," he said. "It just showed me that it's an attainable goal--that anything is attainable if you put your mind to it."

Paula Avalos, 18, began refocusing her career goals after working with Food From the 'Hood for three years.

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