Bake Sale Gone Wild!

With one sweet idea involving vegetables, these Minnesota teens addressed a real health problem, improved their neighborhood, gave themselves jobs, and grew a thriving business. 

Green Garden Bakery youth leaders selling at the 2018 Twin Cities VegFest

When Leensa Ahmed, 17, wants to bite into a crisp, juicy apple, she has to walk three blocks from her apartment, catch a crosstown bus, ride for seven minutes, get off the bus, and walk a few more blocks to a small grocery store. Same for fresh baby spinach, celery, tofu, unsweetened yogurt, and any other healthy dairy or fresh produce. That’s because Leensa’s Minneapolis, Minnesota, neighborhood of Heritage Park is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as a food desert: an area without an easily accessible grocery store nearby. Sure, there are gas stations and convenience stores full of chips and candy, but urban food deserts like Heritage Park don’t have grocery stores within a 1-mile walk. (Rural food deserts don’t have grocery stores nearer than a 10-mile bus ride, for residents without access to a car.)

And what happens when there’s no convenient way to buy an apple? People often turn to eating more readily available junk food instead—which is exactly what Leensa says had happened in Heritage Park. “When I was hungry,” she remembers, “I’d just get fast food, because to me, food was food.” 

But then, four years ago, Leensa and a handful of her middle school classmates signed up for a cooking class. “We weren’t really intrigued by the vegetables or healthy cooking back then,” says Leensa. “It was more like, the older kids were doing this, and it might be fun.”

“Some of us actually hated vegetables,” Raniya Shiekh, 17, says. And she herself was frankly horrified when a teacher first suggested baking a tomato cake. “It was like, ‘Who would ever put a tomato in a cake?! You’re ruining the name of cake right now,’” she remembers. “But when we made it, it was pretty good.” Good enough that when they wanted to fund-raise for a friend who’d been in a car accident in 2014, they decided they’d try selling the cake at a weekend greenmarket. Their goal was to make $500. “We were so busy, we didn’t count our money until the end of the day,” says Raniya. “Then we realized we’d made $1,500—triple our goal. We were beyond happy. It was just a really great surprise.”

In the past four years, Raniya and Leensa and two dozen other high schoolers have gone from reluctantly tasting the healthy treat in an after- school cooking class to learning that they really and truly love vegetables, which they now incorporate daily into their diets. And they’ve also built a successful $50,000-a-year business that sells 2,000 to 3,000 hidden-veggies desserts—like lemon zucchini muffins, beet brownies, and the green tomato cake—every month. That’s healthy, organic food that wouldn’t have been readily available to Heritage Park residents without Green Garden Bakery. 

The bakery’s desserts start as squash and tomatoes and other vegetables grown by the teens in local community gardens. Then, working in shifts, they perform the kitchen magic—chopping and mixing and pouring batter into tins and sliding the tins into the ovens—that turns their harvest into the delectable desserts. Their products are in demand at weekly outdoor markets all over the city.

They grow extra vegetables to give away to neighbors, and they give back their profits: A third pays teen salaries ($10-$12 an hour, depending on the job), a third supports neighborhood programs, and the final third is reinvested back into the bakery. “I’m with my friends, we all get along, and we all love this work,” says Raniya, who is now Green Garden’s lead baker. “To me, it’s amazing how far we’ve come from our small start.”

“We had all these adults coming up to us saying, ‘You should continue this; you should go here, or there,’” says Leensa. “We thought it could actually be really big.” The greenmarket crew petitioned Urban Strategies, the nonprofit that ran their cooking class and the local vegetable gardens, to let them start an actual bakery. There was little funding available, but from the beginning, Urban Strategies treated the teens like real businesspeople, asking them to put together a business plan, name an executive team of eight teens, and even interview for specific jobs. 

The teens’ devotion paid off: After winning a $10,000 entrepreneurship prize last year, they were able to start building their own kitchen. When it’s completed early this year, they’ll be able to start a wholesale operation—selling bigger quantities of veggie-packed goods to stores— plus rent it out for use to other neighborhood entrepreneurs. But the best thing, says Leensa, is the change they see in their neighborhood. “In the beginning, it was just something we were doing to help a friend,” she says. “Now all these younger kids are coming to us, wanting to be involved and being excited that kids are actually able to make change. And we’re providing fresh food for our neighborhood. It’s amazing.” 

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