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'Boys Grow' Program Changes Lives Through Growing Food And Making Ketchup

  Growing and eating local food isn’t just about health for one Kansas City group. Their farm fields are fertile ground for developing responsibility and shaping young lives, and the group’s leaders hope to harvest more than just tomatoes. 

When you grow up in the city, chickens aren’t something you see every day, but 13-year-old Malek Looney is getting to know them well.

"They’ll flap their wings and make loud noises and squawk at you. And you’ll be like, 'Oh no, they're mad at something,'" says Looney.

The teenagers of Boys Grow stepped onto the 12-acre farm for the first time this year in early May. Because of the rain, the opens fields were somewhat waterlogged; flats of plants started from seed stand waiting for drier weather. The chickens roamed under trees and inside their tarp-covered coop.

Farm manager Joshua Anderson says this is a different experience than just working on a community garden.

 "A lot of projects that you see with food and working with kids are usually smaller gardens," he says. "As far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of commercial-scale farms that are trying to start with kids."

Now in its third year, Boys Grow teachers agricultural and business skills to 12 - 14-year-olds, and aims to provide them with positive male role models.

They do it by teaching the boys to grow produce. The boys then transform the produce they grow into products like ketchup, salsa and barbecue sauce and become marketers of their business.

Each boy has to apply for his spot and commit to working with the group for two years. The boys work a few times a month during school, then three days a week in the summertime.

They all sweat in the fields. But part of the work is designing labels and talking with local businesses about carrying their products.

"The underlying goal is producing entrepreneurs. That’s the ultimate goal. We’re just taking a little unorthodox approach in doing that," says founder John Gordon, Jr.

Gordon says they have to learn how to shake someone’s hand properly, to make eye contact.

"A lot of the basic stuff that a lot of the time as you get older, you take it for granted, but if sometimes these guys aren’t necessarily taught those basic skills," he says.

And for this, they get paid. Gordon says earning that money is part of the lesson.

"It gets a little jingle in the pocket, but more importantly, it actually teaches them they can make their own money and have the responsibility of having their own money," he says.

"Sometimes that responsibility is in the form of Playstation 3 or maybe it’s helping out with groceries around the house."

Some of the boys say that being in the program has helped them raise their grades at school.

Another skill they learn is public speaking. MalekLooney spoke about Boys Grow in front of hundreds of people at the Soul Food Film Festival.

"Right after, a lawyer walked up to me and was like, 'You’re very well-spoken,' and he gave me a card, and said, 'We’d like you to come in someday,'" says Looney. "'And I was like, 'Ok, yeah!'"

Looney says Boys Grow is fun because he gets great opportunities while doing something important. He alsohopes to have his own farm someday.

The boys divide the work among their teams. One team works to develop the new product. The last two years, they’ve made salsa and ketchup. This year, they’re adding barbecue sauce to their repertoire.

Fourteen-year-old Tariq Nash hopes to become a chef someday. He’s a member of the culinary team that created the barbecue sauce recipe.

"We start mixing around a bunch of different batches to see what we like," says Nash. "And (then) everybody meets together, and we have all our barbecue sauces together."

They sell their products and vegetables to local restaurants and grocery stores, such as Port Fonda and Green Acres at the Briarcliff Market. The boys also sell at farmer’s markets.

All of that provides about 25 percent of Boys Grow’s budget. The rest comes from grants and donations, but John Gordon hopes they will become 100 percent self-supporting in the future.

Not all the farm work is fun and games. Tariq Nash’s least favorite task is weeding.

"You have to constantly do it or it will take the nutrients from your direct plants," he says. "And it starts to hurt my back when I have to dig down and hoe up the weeds."

Shawnee Mission North biology teacher Ryan Ross is spending this summer working with the boys. He says they teach them the value of responsibility and hard work.

"Because these guys have to show up every day on time and be ready to work, and in the middle of the summer, it’s over a hundred degrees out here," says Ross. "We have to teach them to persevere and stick with it."

Fourteen-year-old Steven Banks says he’s noticed a change in his own work ethic.

"At first, I was lazy and really not that worried about how things went, but after Boys Grow, it opened up my eyes that I need to do this and that and stop being lazy and do the right thing," he says.

For Tariq Nash, the education goes beyond responsibility.

"I learned that growing vegetables, it doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It takes time and dedication, and you have to really take care of the plants and show them the love that you would show any other living being," he says.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

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