A project in north St. Louis aims to help kids grow as they raise a sweet potato crop.
Sweet Potato Project founder Sylvester Brown Jr. says the program was born out of an idea to help build up the north St. Louis community by allowing youth to “take a look at their environment through the lens of entrepreneurs.”
While the program lasts 10 weeks during the summer, the students will return in October to harvest the sweet potatoes and make cookies to sell online and in their neighborhoods.
Sweet potatoes are a staple in many black households, Brown said. “I grew up on them,” he said.
The Sweet Potato Project offers inner-city youth the opportunity to learn about urban agriculture, entrepreneurship and teamwork. The program incorporates training in farming, marketing, sales and personal development. For each week completed, participants receive a minimum-wage salary for their work.
Zavier Menears, 16, is in his second year of working with the project. He said a major factor for getting involved was to stay out of trouble.
“It has taught me a lot about responsibility and discipline,” he said.
Brown says through the program, students learn responsibility and entrepreneurship. He also wants the kids to see the potential in themselves.
“Kids don’t get the validation and encouragement to be who they are,” he said.
The Sweet Potato Project has partnered with the North Area Community Development Corp. and the Missouri Botanical Garden, and has received help from St. Louis University’s Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. In May, the students planted sweet potato seedlings in a section of the Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center.
Steve Jenkins, head chef of the program at SLU, says his involvement with the project is to help the students learn to cook differently and how to be entrepreneurs.
“It seemed natural to try to support what they were doing,” Jenkins said. “The ability to grow is a powerful feeling.”
Jenkins said the program will utilize SLU’s old hospital kitchen to create recipes for sweet potato cookies and learn about packaging and distribution to try to make a profit from the students’ work. He said initiatives like the Sweet Potato Project allow kids to see the world around them, recognize problems and try to fix them.
“When you start to feel like you can change the world, that’s powerful,” he said.
Sherry Roddie, 16, is enjoying her first summer with the project.
“I like the environment, it’s calm and peaceful,” she said. “I get to plant something with my own hands.”