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On an Island in San Francisco Bay, Local Food Creates Jobs

Around the country, communities are talking about how strong regional food systems can create jobs. At the Treasure Island Job Corps Center, committed staff and excited students are proving these communities right.

Job Corps Centers, located in 125 cities and towns nationwide, provide holistic career development training free to at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor, a number of Job Corps Centers are co-administered with the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As the market for local foods has grown, many Job Corps Centers have integrated local food into their training programs or operations. Some have herb and vegetable gardens on site for use by the culinary arts students or in the cafeteria. Others source food from local farms in season.

But at the Treasure Island Job Corps Center in the San Francisco Bay, they're taking it to the next level. Several years ago, the Center's carpentry instructor and a doctor working in the wellness center had the idea of turning a large, unused plot of land into an urban farm. Another Center staff member secured funding, while local urban agriculture experts from City Slicker Farms in Oakland helped them develop the plan that would turn an acre of land on the Island into a working farm.

For students at the Center, building the farm was just as instructive as running it. "We knew this was a great opportunity for the students studying building trades to experience what it's like to be part of a large-scale construction project from start to finish," says Corey Block, who was hired on as the farmer and project manager for the Treasure Island farm in 2010. "Every trade had a niche: heavy equipment operators graded and leveled the ground, the facility maintenance students cut trenches and laid irrigation, cement masonry students poured the foundation, carpenters framed the buildings. Everyone had a hand in it." The culinary arts program students plant vegetables. The raised bed was built by cement masonry students.

The Center is located on a small island in the San Francisco Bay halfway between Oakland and San Francisco, accessible only by bridges. It may be geographically isolated, but it's right in the middle of the Bay Area's cutting-edge green design and green construction industries - which served the Center well when the farm was built. "Students were taught to use reclaimed materials and other elements of green building," says Block. "We used materials left over from the renovation of the Bay Bridge to build masonry garden beds. The electrical class got training in solar design and installation." The Center now has an entire class devoted to solar engineering.

These learning opportunities didn't stop when the farm was completed. Education on how food is grown and how to use seasonal produce became a central piece of the Center's culinary arts program. Many Job Corps centers have culinary programs, and Treasure Island students are trained for jobs at fine dining establishments. 150 students participate in culinary arts training on Treasure Island.

"They're in the Bay Area," says Block, "and farm to table experience will mean a lot on their resumes. The connection between farms and restaurants has become a significant food trend. We want the culinary students to grow a wide range of produce and get creative as they explore options for using it, and they'll get a leg up in the industry because of this experience."

Culinary students have also learned to appreciate the labor that goes into growing food. They turn beds, harvest produce, weigh and pack it, and learn about how food moves from the farm to a restaurant. Through their work on the farm, they also come to understand seasonality and how choosing seasonal produce for menus can mean fresher, tastier food. "It's an application of everything they're learning about food and the science behind growing food," says Block. "They learn that asparagus is a perennial crop and that we eat the young stems. They see that it's dormant in winter, and young shoots come out in the spring. And so they learn that it's a spring menu item, because that's the time of year when the plant produces the part that we eat. Seasonality isn't arbitrary - it's governed by science."

Now in its first full growing season, the farm yielded 200 pounds of produce a month during the cool months and 600 pounds in September. The food is used in the culinary program and the cafeteria, which serves 3 meals a day to 600 students. The farm's 20 laying hens produce eggs that are used by the culinary students as well.

Now in its first full growing season, Treasure Island Job Corps Center's one-acre farm is yielding up to 600 pounds of produce a month."There's an ongoing conversation around planning, how to use what we have," says Corey. "It's real-life experience - how a farmer plans his or her operation to serve restaurant markets and how chefs work with farmers, how they learn to be flexible and deal with changes in seasonality or volumes. It is a constant learning opportunity for us all."

The learning continues. Students in the building trades continue to do maintenance and create new projects, whether it's a grape arbor or a new roof for the compost bins. In May, fifty Google executives came out to work on the farm and to conduct a class for business and computer students. The Center was awarded a Neighborhood Empowerment Network's "Best Green Community Project" prize from the City of San Francisco, which recognized the farm not just for its educational value but for its impacts on water conservation, stormwater reduction and renewable energy.

Regardless of their trade, students will leave Treasure Island Job Corps Center ready to break new ground in their professional careers.

To learn more about the Job Corps/local food connection, check out the Job Corps centers on the KYF Compass map.