Keeping Busy: Harvest Kitchen

Aug 14, 2014

This summer, we’re bringing you stories of programs for kids during the summer months, for a series we’re calling “Keeping Busy.”  These programs are aimed specifically towards at-risk youth, many of whom don’t have safe, productive, places to spend their summer vacations. 

For this installment, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender visited Harvest Kitchen, a culinary program in Pawtucket.

Teachers and students wash and peel carrots at Harvest Kitchen.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

In a nondescript building in a group of kids are washing and chopping vegetables in a small industrial kitchen making pickled carrots. Some wash carrots, others chop and peel. Farther down the line 17 year old Julio Davila is prepping pickling jars.  

Fresh carrots being washed, before peeling and pickling.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

“We basically first you put in the red pepper, then the garlic, and then we throw in the dill, and then when we get the carrots we throw the carrots in there,” said Davila.

The kids are all learning to cook as part of a program called Harvest Kitchen.  The non-profit Farm Fresh Rhode Island runs the program.  It teaches kids how to cook, and pays them.  All the students have had some sort of run in with the law.  They’re either on or have completed probation.  Davila’s probation officer told him about the program when he was only about 15.  He said the program is changing his life.               

I was like one of those kids that I didn't go to school and stuff.  I was always focused on the street.  Now this changed my whole way of thinking and stuff.  Now I don’t have to be on the street.  I’m in Harvest Kitchen.  We’re learning new skills every day,” said Davila.

Skills that give him a newly found confidence in the kitchen.

When they gave me the interview, Harvest Kitchen, I was like I’m not such a good cook, but they told me, you’ll learn on the way, and that’s what happened,” said Davila.

Now he’s even dreaming of a job in the field.

I have some thought about it.  I want to go into culinary.  It’s a trade that I want to learn more of,” said Davila.

But leading kids towards careers in cooking is not necessarily the goal said director Jen Stott. She helped start the program in 2010.   She said Harvest Kitchen works to solve two issues at once: transitioning kids out of probation, and reducing waste from local farms.

So farm fresh was hearing from farmers that they had a lot of excess produce that they were just throwing away, they weren’t able to process it,” said Stott.

So Farm Fresh Rhode Island partnered with Rhode Island’s Department of Child and Family services to start the program.  Now, at-risk kids are learning how to make preserved food, like pickles and apple sauce, and selling those products at local farmers markets.

So it would help kids learn valuable jobs skills just coming to work every day, making good food, and then it would obviously help the farms by using up all of their excess produce to create these great things,” said Stott.

On this day, the product is pickled carrots.  Back inside the kitchen, twenty-two year old Monica Camacho carefully places white labels on Mason jars.  She’s been with the program since it started, and has seen it change lives.

Monica Camacho sits behind dozens of labelled jars of pickled carrots ready to be sold at farmer's markets.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

“It’s also good because they’ve got kids that people think can’t do anything.  Then they’ve got kids that are here and that are actually showing the world like, we can become good and do good.  The surrounding and the stuff we’re into in the streets, it’s like you can’t go good in the streets because the streets aren’t good. And with this program they’ve got kids thinking you don’t have to do this; you could do this. I’ve seen kids go from nothing to something,” said Camacho.

Director Jen Stott said more programs like Harvest Kitchen give kids the opportunity to be productive and gain self-confidence.  She said it may be key to curbing the violence that plagues many these kids’ neighborhood.

What you need is to keep these kids busy, to give them something positive to do, because they’re bored, they have no money.  And then what do they do, they’re running the streets.”

Sean Hopkins stands behind the Harvest Kitchen table at a farmer's market in Providence.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

At a farmers market in Providence, Sean Hopkins waits behind a table loaded with apple sauce and zucchini chips, tempting passerby’s to sample them.  A potential customer tries the chips, and loves them.

Director Stott said this is exactly the type of interaction that her kids need.  Hearing positive feedback from total strangers.

It makes them proud to be a part of something. I feel like if we could just give these kids more opportunity to learn, and be productive, and just gain some self-worth.   I mean, we’ve seen it happen, it changes their lives,” said Stott.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic?  Please email us, we’d like to hear from you.