West Side students get in hot sauce business by growing peppers at home

The Young Men's Educational Network's pepper project is teaching young people about agriculture, business and more

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Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

Young people on the West Side are growing hot chili peppers as a cash crop to earn some spare pocket money for the summer.

The pepper project was organized by the Young Men's Educational Network as a way to give young folks some extra cash while also teaching them an important lesson on urban agriculture.

The chilis will be brewed into hot sauce by Small Axe Peppers, a New York company that sources peppers for its sauces from local gardens across the country to help the gardens finance themselves and support the surrounding community.

Urban agriculture has been a core part of YMEN after school programming in North Lawndale for over five years. The organization transformed a vacant lot at Cermak Road and Avers Street into a community garden where YMEN runs programs that give young people jobs and teaches them to become stewards of the community.

The partnership with Small Axe Peppers will give people in North Lawndale another entry point into urban agriculture that can show them the value of growing food, while also building up entrepreneurship skills.

"Part of it is really trying to help us find ways to grow work ethic in these young men, give them some meaningful employment and also give them an opportunity to see the fruits of their labors," said Marcus Thorne, executive director of operations at YMEN.

Small Axe Peppers sent YMEN the seeds, which they began cultivating indoors months ago. Now that that the risk of frost has passed, YMEN have been giving the seedlings to young people in the neighborhood through a partnership with the Chicago West Side Christian School.

Students at the school were given two pepper seedlings they could take and grow at their homes. Teacher Carey Trout worked the peppers into her earth science curriculum as a hands-on lesson about the biosphere. Classes learned how to nurture the seedlings indoors and eventually plant in the ground outside.

Late in the summer when the time comes to harvest, students will be able to choose what to do with their bounty of hot peppers. The young people can use the peppers to make food or hot sauce with their families, or they can sell the peppers 3 inches or bigger back to YMEN for 50 cents each.

"When they came into the school to pick up the pepper plants, they were so excited. Many of them didn't realize there was a profit associated with it," said Carey Trout, who is the wife of YMEN Founder Mike Trout. "For many of them it was the delight of being able to do something useful, and creating something that they can eat."

Trout said giving young folks an opportunity to earn cash allows them to see themselves as entrepreneurs and explore new possibilities in the food economy.

"Young people can develop these skills and see that there's money in it, and take ownership over it. To see that when they are diligent, their hard work pays out in the end," she said.

Eighth-grader Corey said he's not doing it for the cash, though the money doesn't hurt. The peppers are Corey's first time gardening, and he is excited about the responsibility it takes to care for a plant and watch it grow. He dreams of one day starting an Italian restaurant, so he wants to learn what it's like to grow a vegetable that will one day become food.

"I'm excited to grow the peppers because that's responsibility on my end. I want to learn to grow my own one day and maybe start a business," Corey said.

YMEN has given out approximately 120 plants to young people in Lawndale. They will be planting around 380 additional chili seedlings at a new site where the organization is developing another community garden at Springfield and Avers avenues. The garden will be tended by participants of YMEN's youth programs, and all chilis grown at the garden and bought from the students will be sold to Small Axe Peppers to be made into hot sauce.

"The gain for us, even though we won't gain financially, is to have students learning how to grow peppers, or grow anything really," Thorne said. "So it's an opportunity for them to learn something about entrepreneurship."

In spite of YMEN's pepper plant project, Thorne lacks a green thumb and said his home is where plants go to die. But he has been learning more about horticulture and encouraging young community members to do the same because Thorne recognizes the importance of being connected to the production of food, especially in areas like Lawndale that lack food access and are vulnerable to food shortages in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many Lawndale residents, Thorne is just one generation removed from southern relatives who were farmers.

"We feel so far removed from these things that my grandparents found essential. For me, it's about being self-sustaining. It's about knowing where your food comes from, being able to sustain ourselves and pass this knowledge on to new generations," Thorne said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago. Read more Block Club Chicago here

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