"Who likes squash?" asked Emily Neustrom, a project coordinator with the LSU AgCenter. She was holding up a packet of seeds and speaking to students at Baton Rouge’s McKinley High School.
Only one youngster raised his hand.
Despite the group’s distaste for squash, they were eager to plant squash seeds, along with cucumber and zinnia seeds and pepper transplants.
The students make up the McKinley Farmers of Tomorrow, and they were planting an acre of crops at the LSU AgCenter’s Burden Center in Baton Rouge. Later in the summer, the vegetables and flowers will end up at the group’s neighborhood farmer’s market.
"The market serves a need in the community," Neustrom said. "There is no grocery store here, and the community loves seeing the kids out on the street selling the vegetables."
The students live in the Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood – a struggling community in inner-city Baton Rouge where many residents live at or below the poverty level. Minister Fahmee Sabree, director of the Islamic Complex in Baton Rouge, organized the group three years ago as a safe summer activity for the students. They earn a stipend and learn about leadership, running a business, nutrition and selling a product.
"They are not just planting peppers," he said, looking at the students working in the field. "They are learning teamwork. It is hard to walk those long rows by yourself. But when you work together, it is easier."
For most of these Baton Rouge youth, it was their first time planting anything.
"I want to learn how to plant things and to have fun," said Kenneth Heard.
Some students are thinking beyond this summer. "You get to learn and have fun, and this will look nice for college," said Heather Smith.
Regineka Johnson and Keanna Jarmon participated in the program last year and have returned as student leaders.
"I came back because I wanted to teach others about planting," Johnson said.
"I like it because I get to meet new people, talk to people and negotiate and learn how to work a business," Jarmon added.
As part of the experience, the students also attend classes in nutrition, cooking and landscape architecture.
The hot peppers they grow become the main ingredient in a hot sauce they will bottle and sell at the market – Old South Baton Rouge Hot Stuff.
"We really wanted to give them the full experience of planting, harvesting, selling and making a product," Neustrom said.
LSU AgCenter horticulture professor Dr. Carl Motsenbocker teaches classes at LSU that contain a service-learning component.
Motsenbocker and his classes work with the McKinley group. Motsenbocker hopes to expand the program to a year-round job for the students involved.
"I want to develop a community garden in the neighborhood that the kids can work with after school," Motsenbocker said.
He described the community as a food desert and would like to see the market be more than just a seasonal market. The morning the students planted the vegetables was a warm one.
"If they can come together under this hot sun and work hard and laugh together, they can be successful," Sabree said. Tobie Blanchard
(This article was published in the summer 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)