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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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L.A.-based Tender Greens Takes Action in Community, Readies Launch of Sustainable Life Project

September 12, 2012 |

In addition to providing a haven for economical foodies in southern California, quick casual restaurant Tender Greens is working to play another important role in the community through its Sustainable Life Project (SLP). Starting in just a couple of weeks, SLP will train groups of young adults transitioning out of foster care in fields ranging from agriculture to culinary arts. The program aims to cultivate in them an “appreciation not only for the taste of organic produce, but also in its potential as a career path,” by helping participants develop the interest, skills and confidence to successfully pursue higher education or careers related to sustainable food.

Tender Greens co-founder Erik Oberholtzer explains how SLP came into being.

“We always wanted to play an important role in the community, but in the beginning we were so busy building Tender Greens that we found ourselves just handing out food and money to whoever asked. It became a little ridiculous…There is no shortage of opportunity for in-kind donations,” he says. The drawback with this type of donation, though, is that you rarely get feedback. “There’s never any reporting back – thank you for your donation, this is what it goes to, here are the people who benefited,” he says.

He adds that while donations of food and money are important and necessary, for him it was “more meaningful to take action.”

“I think it’s a bit of a cop out to just sign a check or send food… I thought it was more important to get involved. I thought it was important to have an intimate relationship with the problem and be a part of the solution,” he says.

While many programs provide housing, basic life skills or college opportunities for at-risk youth, Oberholtzer says that’s often where their reach ends – and then “they have to release these kids and hope for the best. We take these kids ready to stick their foot in the water and see what they might want to do in life.”

SLP’s site explains why these particular kids could benefit from some extra nurturing.

“Youth transitioning out of foster care face unique challenges that make them especially vulnerable. Often times distrust, abuse, neglect and general lack of access to resources and guidance makes navigating adulthood difficult. With primary needs like housing, vocational training and legal support most pressing, these youth frequently don’t have the luxury of dreaming beyond finding a home and employment.”

Starting September 21, SLP will offer eight of these teens a three-month program consisting of three components. The first is an expedited culinary school experience in which the students will learn everything from sanitation management and knife skills to how to braise and smoke food. The second component is a weekly field trip to one of Tender Greens’ partner farms, so that the kids get firsthand exposure to small-scale sustainable farming.

“We do work days where we feed the pigs or milk the goats [. . .] so they understand that there’s the romantic side of farming and then there’s the reality of farming,” says Oberholtzer.

The third component of the program is an internship at Tender Greens, in which the teens become acquainted with the different aspects of the business, under the chef’s guidance. They graduate from the program with professional culinary skills, an understanding of farm work and experience with all of the different positions in a restaurant – and a guaranteed full-time job offer at Tender Greens.

Says Oberholtzer, “They’re employed full time. I’ve taken three months to train them personally. I’m also going to make sure that they do well, which is not a benefit that everybody gets but that’s the advantage of going through the course.”

Tender Greens has provided most of the funding for the program so far, and Tender Greens’ farmers and purveyors are donating some of the products that will be used in the program’s kitchen. Fortunately, staffing costs are not an issue – explains Oberholtzer, “I’m doing the teaching, so that’s free of charge and the tours will be taken care of by us and my chefs are the ones that will nurture them along in the practical experience.”

Getting the program up and running has been a challenge, says Oberholtzer, but they’re nearing the final stages. “Starting a nonprofit is like starting a business,” says Oberholtzer. “You get knocked over by reality. You start to navigate through the forest of reality into something that makes sense…What we finally came up with is something that’s compelling and is going to be really rewarding for the kids.”

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