By FALPC Intern, Jacquelyn Burmeister
Visiting one of the REC Farmers Market in Worcester, you may notice something distinctive about the YouthGROW farm stand. Besides being manned by mostly youth, they are one of the few places in the market that offers something apart from the raw produce that their farm yields. Next to the organic leafy greens and the stem flowers you’ll find an inconspicuous display of bottles that pack a kick, and are easily the best selling item that REC offers.
Drop It Like It’s Hot Sauce is a hot sauce produced locally by YouthGROW youth from their organic gardens in Worcester. It has made a name for itself among the Farmers Market crowd, and most people that I ran into at the Saturday market encouraged me to buy a bottle. When I did, I was blown away by the kick it packed, without the spice overpowering the other ingredients. I found the flavor to be extremely versatile, hearing of people using it on kale, eggs, pita bread, salad dressings, sandwiches and in the base of soups and sauces.
I was especially pleased to know that the vegetables that it was made from where local and organic whenever possible, and that the production of the sauce was supporting Worcester youth both financially and through skill building.
YouthGROW is a youth development program at the REC that utilizes urban gardening as a means to give local, at-risk teens life skills to succeed. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to talk with some of the youth that help produce the sauce, as well as Grace Duffy, the YouthGROW coordinator who has spent several years on the project.
Drop It Like It’s Hot Sauce has been a work in progress for years now. It all started in 2008 when REC students and staff decided that it would be more profitable to sell a prepared product made from their increasing yield of local produce. “We wanted to carve out a niche for ourselves,” says Grace. An REC team began experimenting with different types of products, holding taste tests at their farmers markets for a variety of salad dressings and barbeque sauces. While these had varying degrees of success, at the end of the day, they found that the hot sauce was the hands down winner. REC hypostasized that this had to do with the wide range of cultures that utilize a spicy sauce in cooking, representing the diversity found at the farmers markets, as opposed to the narrow appeal of a particular flavor of salad dressing.
After figuring out the right product to sell, REC had a whole new set of challenges for the Worcester youth to untangle. These included the refinement of the sauce recipe, the procurement of kitchen space, FDA approval, design of a label, and the marketing of the product. YouthGROW has taken on these tasks with gusto, learning a slew of business related skills on top of their ongoing organic gardening practices.
Chad is a Youth Leader at YouthGROW that has been working on Drop it Like it’s Hot Sauce recently that I had a chance to chat with that the REC. He has been working at the REC for several years now, having started in YouthGROW as a student in the summer program and taking on more and more responsibilities with each passing season. When asked about that he has gained from the hot sauce experience he says, “YouthGROW has given me the opportunity to do so many different things”. Apart from working in the kitchen and on the farm, Chad has spoken on conference panels, talked with state legislators, public health officials and school committees. He says, “It’s really cool to have people listening to you”.
YouthGROWers pose with their latest batch of Drop It Like It’s Hot Sauce, available at all REC Farmers Markets
(Left to right) Katherine, a junior at Abby Kelly HS; Chad, Youth Leader at REC; Justin, a sophomore at University Park HS
Drop it Like It’s Hot Sauce has been a huge success, and accounts for the majority of the profit that REC pulls in at farmers markets. By midsummer, REC had already sold over one hundred bottles, and when I talked to Grace, Chad and the YouthGROWers, they had just come back from the kitchen where they had prepared 46 more bottles for the week’s farmers markets. But their success has not been without the support of the rest of the community. For example, the FDA regulations for the kitchen space to make the product made it difficult to use any old countertop and stove. Because REC’s kitchen space was both non-compliant and just too small, YouthGROW spent much of the past few years hopping around between whatever kitchens would let them operate whenever making a batch of sauce. Only recently has The Community Harvest Project of Grafton been able to offer consistent space, which REC says will help with production logistics very much. In addition to in-kind donations, YouthGROW has received several grants to fund the trainings necessary to certify food production.
So what’s the next step? Grace explains that now the challenge is “figuring out the balance between expanding and being profitable”. Sending the sauce to a retail chain would require the REC to either increase the sauce’s price, or decrease production costs in order to continue to break even. Grace is concerned that a hike may price the sauce out of the market. But one of the biggest commitments of the REC is also its biggest expenditure: providing fair wages to their youth. Chad explains, “It would defeat the purpose to cut labor costs”. What makes the sauce special is that it’s utilizing organic farming to provide opportunities to Worcester youth.
So, at least for now, if you want to try you own bottle of Drop It Like It’s Hot Sauce, you can visit one of the (REC Farmers Markets) and find the YouthGROW tent. The farmers markets will be going on until November, so make sure you get out there to stock up for the winter, when you will defiantly want a spicy pick-me-up!
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