A nonprofit that helps youth find jobs after being arrested has jumped on the food movement bandwagon. It’s using gardening to teach at-risk youth responsibility and help springboard them into the local food industry.
Michael Miles, 17, works as an intern at the South Park farm-to-table restaurant Alchemy. As a prep cook, his days consist of chopping vegetables, flattening seven ounces of grass-fed beef into a perfect hamburger patty and stepping in wherever he can to help the chefs prepare for the busy dinner service.
“My job is to come here, chop up most of the stuff, help them cross most of the stuff off the list,” Miles said.
His colleague, 19-year-old Marshawn Jackson, works in the art-filled dining room filling water glasses and seating guests. He said the tree-lined streets and boutique restaurants of South Park are a far cry from where he and Miles grew up: Skyline in southeastern San Diego.
Jackson said growing up there helped him become a leader — the bad kind.
“It was just the thugs that hanged [sic] around and drug dealers and just crimes that were committed around that area,” he said. “I was just influenced at a young age of negativity. So I never looked at positive stuff.”
Both teens have been in trouble with the law. Jackson served nine months in juvenile hall for stealing cars. Miles went to juvenile hall for a week for vandalizing property.
Both Miles and Jackson said their futures looked bleak until they got involved with Second Chance, a job-readiness program on Imperial Avenue in Encanto. Miles said he dreamed of getting into the food industry but didn’t know how.
“I was just always out with my friends, didn’t really have anything going for me, so I was just gonna be another minority in the streets,” Miles said. “But then once Second Chance did kick in, it helped me out a lot. It showed me a new perspective of life.”
Second Chance is an intensive job-training boot camp where youth and adults who were incarcerated or are returning from rehabilitation learn interview skills, how to work in groups and build their resumes.
For their youth program, Second Chance organizers decided to turn a vacant into a flourishing vegetable garden.
Garden Manager Kristin Kvernland said many of the program members have grown up in food deserts, where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by. She said Second Chance strives to make the local food movement inclusive.
“The organic, local, sustainable food movement is often catered and tailored toward middle- and upper-class white Americans, while people of color and those with a more limited incomes are left out,” Kvernland said.
Including Second Chance youth in that discussion, Kvernland said, helps them become engaged — and healthy — members of society. Among rows of artichokes and carrots, the teenagers are taught how to make organic fertilizer out of oyster shells. They study the seasonal calendar for growing crops in San Diego. But Jackson said he learned life lessons that go beyond the garden gate.
“I learned patience,” Jackson said. “The first time I planted something I thought, like, in four days it would be blooming. But you just got to wait and nourish it.”
Jackson is putting that patience to work at Alchemy. He’s hoping that after working four days a week for 120 hours this summer, he’ll be brought on as a paid employee. And he has a good chance. Jackson said he’s learned to keep busy during lulls in business by cleaning up and helping out behind the bar.
His hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. He said he’s being recognized for his positive leadership skills for the first time in his life.
“This is essential for all of us, is confidence,” Alchemy owner Ron Troyano said. “That they’ve set out to accomplish a goal, achieved that goal — whether it was learning how to work a knife or to follow a recipe, or for Marshawn, if it was learning how to interact with people and feel comfortable about that. Because that confidence will enable them to achieve other things.”
Just a few miles north of Alchemy in North Park, Second Chance alumnus Samantha Arpallan is reaping the fruits of her labor in the garden and internship program.
“I learned how to grow [plants], I learned how to take care of them,” Arpallan said. “I never came across it before though, if it wasn’t for Second Chance I wouldn’t have known how much I like to plant.”
The 19-year-old ran away from foster care at age 13 and had a baby at 14. Now she’s getting paid to help the San Diego Seed Company get off the ground. She started as an intern, setting up backyard micro-farms in neighborhoods like North Park and Hillcrest. The company develops seeds there that are adapted to San Diego’s climate.
Carrie Driskill, Arpallan’s boss, met her when she gave a talk to Second Chance youth after the program had ordered seeds from her company. She said they instantly hit it off, calling Arpallan the “best, brightest and most hard-working” intern at Second Chance. Driskill said that adding a third person to her small team has enabled the San Diego Seed Company to grow; they are currently in talks with Sprouts grocery store to get their seed packets on the shelves.
Second Chance Youth Coordinator Ricky Valdez said successes like Arpallan’s go beyond dollars earned.
“They take ownership of their community now by feeling they are apart of the mainstream solution rather than always being part of the problem,” he said. “The Urban Garden is just an avenue for them to be engaged. Instead of working against the community, they work alongside a lot of the leaders in this community, in the food justice movement.”
That attitude shift is apparent as Jackson talks about working in the garden.
“It’s very calming to know that you’re growing a life and it’s progressing because of you,” he said. “It makes me feel like a father of plants.”
Jackson and Miles said the plan to stay in the local food industry and will enroll at San Diego City College this fall.
Video by Megan Burks and Bianca Bruno