Recently, there was a five-alarm casserole emergency in Greeneville, TN. Word had gotten out through the local newspaper that a group of teenage women were starting a catering company using fresh, local produce and meats. The news story also said that they would be making casseroles.
“We got seventeen orders in the first week,” says Debbie Strickland, farm and food training coordinator. She’s in her kitchen where five young women of the Mini-Farming Ninjas team have taken over every inch of counter and table space. They chat while they chop fire-engine-red tomatoes, glossy yellow squash, crisp celery and green peppers, and plump zucchini. A basket of heirloom tomatoes sits on the black-and-white checkered floor. You can almost feel the buzz of casserole energy.
Then half the room starts crying. Debbie has just Cuisinarted a handful of fresh green onions. The girls evacuate to the back of the kitchen until the onion burn abates as the diced bulbs soften in a pot with the local, grass-fed ground beef.
By three o’clock these girls, age 13 to 18, will have prepared thirteen casseroles – veggie ziti, meat ziti, veggie lasagna, meat lasagna. They will sell them for between $18 and $25. They only recently finished their business plan to open the county’s first full-service (set-up, serve, clean-up) catering business. They hadn’t planned on the casserole frenzy.
“We all need casseroles.” Sally Causey states this as absolutely and enthusiastically as a fish telling his school that they all need water. “Anyone with kids and work and a thousand things to do knows the beauty of the casserole.”
Sally is the executive director of Rural Resources, a farm, education, farmer’s market sponsor, and service center in Greeneville, TN that has been growing, instructing, and sharing food and cooking knowledge with the people of Greene County for two decades. They have benefited from two USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grants that have led directly to the emergency facing the Mini-Farming Ninjas.
The first grant, in 2006-2007, launched the Rural Resource’s teen project. It began by simply identifying the underserved teens appropriate for the project. The assembled team then began weekly visits to the Rural Resources site for courses in farming. Sally and her staff helped the teens operate mobile food markets out of the Rural Resources produce bus, and they developed school and community gardens on the teenagers’ home turf.
Rural Resources has a wide audience to reach. Despite the agricultural history of the area, many of the county residents live in food-insecure households. At the program’s beginning, Rural Resources worked with elementary school students. They realized quickly that the serious food insecurity issues existed in the community. With help from Tusculum College students, Sally and her team gathered stats on household food problems. They found that while the area is rich in farming history, its chief crop had become the big-market tobacco and the historic kitchen garden had receded from many residents’ memories.
When the price support system for tobacco farmers ended in the early 2000s, many people stopped farming altogether. Greeneville began to exhibit food insecurity problems that mimicked inner city issues – lack of transportation limiting access, poor choices for fresh food in local grocery stores, and a lack of knowledge of how to prepare fresh food among the younger generations.
The teens Sally and company were targeting fell into that category. Their families live in low-income housing, sometimes moving in and out of housing developments as parental income levels rise and fall. They often lack a stake in any one neighborhood or home. Some don’t have transportation, relying on the Rural Resources bus.
Sally recognized a need to prolong the tenure of the teen program. Its success was proven from its first run with the original CFP grant, but too often the positive impacts of a program for youth end as soon as they “graduate” from the often limited time frame of a single initiative. The organization outgrows the grant or the youth outgrow their tenure.
So Sally applied for a second CFP, which Rural Resources received in 2007. This allowed them to expand the teen program to what has now become a four-year initiative. A team of teens begins with a year on the farm, learning what it takes to plant, maintain, harvest, and manage a season of crops. In the second year, the same group of ten learns to cook using mostly fresh produce grown at Rural Resources. The third year, the team, which gives itself a name like the Mini-Farming Ninjas, creates a business plan for a food-related project to be implemented in their fourth year.
Sally and Rural Resources know they could cast a wider net and reach more people, but they’ve made the conscious decision to dig in with a small group of teenagers and see them through four years of development. Now their first group of teens, the Mini-Farming Ninjas, is ahead of the game. Their business plan has already resulted in business, a half-year ahead of schedule. They’re shifting the focus from full-scale catering to a frozen casserole product. It makes perfect sense since they can use the fresh seasonal produce from the farm where they’ve worked and other farms associated with Rural Resources, and they can make a variety of dishes that appeal to a wide range of the community. The profits, after they cover costs (some of the produce and the grass-fed beef comes from local farmers who are part of the Rural Resources network), will go toward the team members with a collective fund for possible business reinvestment if the endeavor grows beyond the fourth year implementation.
The Mini-Farming Ninjas’ kitchen buzz is an excitement for business, for seeing the fruits of their three years of work and training with Rural Resources and one another. They are even a little surprised by all the excitement over casseroles. But, to Sally, that’s just enough lesson for them to learn as they get older. Sally has always been looking long-term with the teen program, and today, apparently, is no different: “People are born and people die and you have to have casseroles. The teens are just beginning to understand how casseroles make life less crazy.”