Modesto jam project gives teens lesson in business

naustin@modbee.comJuly 28, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com

— Big dreams are stirring in pots of steaming fruit above Greens on Tenth, where a dozen teens have spent their summer break learning how to run a business.

Theirs is the sweet story behind Random Food Co. jams, made with donated fruit and sold by the young entrepreneurs at the Modesto Certified Farmers Market on 16th Street every Thursday.

"It's a story in a jar," is the standard sales pitch at the market, said Kyle Ojcius, 17, who hopes to one day open a shop with skateboards and blown glass art.

"Everyone's eating our story," tossed in Shayla Anderson, 16, who hopes to become a motivational speaker to advocate against alcoholism, something that's touched the lives of many people she knows.

"It's something I'm really passionate about," Shayla said, and she knows she'll need business skills to make it work.

The teens take classes to learn business theory and hear from industry veterans as part of the 10-week course run by the Center for Human Services using volunteered time and donated dollars.

The 90-hour program gives a certificate and a $250 stipend to those who complete it.

'Teaching me to talk to people'

The hands-on portion of the program included teens picking 80 pounds of commercially grown and donated blueberries this year. They sort, wash and trim countless pounds of fruit given by growers, sterilize canning equipment, cook the jam, jar it, label it and sell it at the market.

"You can't be afraid to take a 'no,' " Kyle commented about his sales experience. Rejection comes about 50 percent of the time, he estimated.

But earlier this month, there was a steady stream of buyers, many returning for the tasty toast toppers they had bought before. "It was excellent," said Victoria Jimenez as she stopped to buy jam with her three grandchildren. "I think it's so cool, the program they're doing."

She was an easy sale. But even the no-sales are helping Christy Balaoing, 15, overcome her shyness. "It's teaching me to talk to people so I'll know how to get customers," said the teen, who hopes to develop a cosmetology business combined with a bakery.

Her sister Brittney Balaoing, 17, is in the program, learning how to make personal care for the elderly into a going concern. She helped her grandmother in the Bay Area and found she had a knack.

Jennifer Hernandez, 17, sees a need for a transportation service for people with disabilities after watching riders in wheelchairs wait long stretches for an open spot on city buses.

Angelique Munguia, 17, is in it for the experience. "We learn the whole process of a business: selling, making your things, making customers happy," she said.

'Learned to think like an owner'

The teens develop their own visions, learning business skills and the importance of academic skills along the way, said Rhonda Dahlgren.

"The goal, whether or not they become an entrepreneur, is they have learned to think like an owner, and that increases their value," she said.

Dahlgren manages Harvesting Futures, the official name of the two-pronged program run by the Center for Human Services. The Random Foods Co. is the jam and salsa-making entrepreneurial side. Gleaning backyard fruit for food banks is the service side.

Greens owner Ann Endsley developed the entrepreneurial academy last year and continues to support the program. "It's part of our whole mission with Greens, to help employ people and help mentor people about jobs," she said. "We wanted to do something significant to show young adults you can use the beauty and bounty produced right here in our back yard to make a business."

Endsley brought in friends in advertising, graphic design and other business areas to teach the teens and give them honest feedback. "We try to give them as close to real life as possible," she said.

'It builds community'

The fruit used in the jams and the vegetables that will fill salsa jars later this month were destined for the compost pile — too ripe, too late for the pick, too something or other for the commercial grower, Endsley said.

"In our commercial system, that perfectly ripe peach won't work," she said. Saving at least a slice of the tons of produce that go uneaten in a mechanized world was another goal, Endsley said.

That would-be waste, she said, "turns into a job. Then it's also fun, and it builds community. They're like a family after the first weeks."

Last year's teen group came up with the Random Foods brand. "It's random fruit — whatever we can get. It's random kids (who come into the program). It's taking what you have and making something wonderful with it," Endsley said.

Random Foods jams and salsas, $6 each or two for $10, are sold at the Modesto Certified Farmers Market on 16th Street each Thursday morning. For more on the program or to donate, visit www.centerforhumanservices.org/ harvesting-futures.html, or call Rhonda Dahlgren at (209) 526-1476.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter @NanAustin or at www.modbee.com/education.

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