The sales pitch is perhaps irresistible: A dozen or so teens dancing to a song they recorded themselves, rapping about the merits of healthy living and organic vegetables while throwing peppers they grew into a pot.
“Who got the sauce?” they shout. “I got the sauce!”
The sauce in question is All Hands Hot Sauce, a mango-spiked sweet-heat sauce made by a group of Hampton teens from peppers they grew this summer in a little community garden outside the Hampton Department of Human Services. Proceeds go to a local nonprofit preschool, and to the teens themselves.
Or, you can take their words for it.
“My food is organic, I pulled it from the planet,” raps one of the teens in a video they released to promote their All Hands sauce. “Fruits and veggies, livin’ healthy, that’s a major habit. We got all the sauce and for $10 you can have it.”
The sauce is a brainstorm of Stephanie Jackson and Adetokunboh “Ali” Afonja, who, alongside multiple health services agencies, run a nonprofit called F.O.O.T., Families Overcoming Obstacles Together.
When Ali Afonja was growing up in New York, he remembers seeing afterschool and jobs programs designed to give teens something to do that wasn’t getting into trouble.
“Idle time is the devil’s playground,” he laughs. “It was always summer youth jobs you could get that would take you from the streets and provide great opportunities.”
And so he and his wife had an idea. What if their nonprofit hosted a program for at-risk teens (the Afonjas say they prefer the term “at hope”) where they could learn to grow vegetables in a community garden, then use the fresh vegetables to start a hot sauce business? The Hampton Department of Human Services referred the teens.
“I thought it would be great if we created a product from the garden,” Ali Afonja said, “so I approached my master gardener, and a chef that’s also on my staff — she helped created the ingredients. I felt it was important for the youth not only to garner funds, but also involve themselves in community service.”
The Afonjas began the Community Learning Garden in 2014 as part of their health services company Holistic Family Solutions, working with clients referred by Hampton social services. The garden not only serves as therapy for their many clients, but as a place where children can learn the importance of fresh vegetables and a healthy diet.
And now, it could also be a place where teens learned community service and entrepreneurialism.
The students learned to grow the vegetables from master gardener Zdravka Wornom — “Miss Z” to the teens in the program — who said she was at first surprised so many teens signed on to grow veggies.
“I think what happened was a couple of the leaders decided, ‘OK, let’s try it,’” she said. “Ali talked to them about being entrepreneurs, because he was very entrepreneurial even from a young age, as a teenager.”
Wornom downplays her role, saying the teens did it all themselves, from planting to harvest — and that all she did was give them simple instructions. She also credits Anderson’s Garden Center for donating plants, and Mercury Mulch for providing mulch.
“You don’t know what mulch means to a gardener,” she said.
The sauce recipe came from Brittney Callier, a former social worker who now has her own West Indian-inspired catering company, Pour and Stay Full. Callier said she tried out multiple recipes with the teens —and that the third one was a hit, an “island flavor” sweet-heat sauce with veggies from the garden and mangos from the store. Much of the sauce’s character, she said, comes from the mix they grew in the garden.
“We threw an assortment of peppers they grew in there — my lord, so many different peppers,” she said. “Pimientos, banana, Hungarian, regular chili peppers, jalapeños, habaneros…”
The resulting sauce, however, is not overwhelmingly hot, she said: more flavor than pain.
They’ve already sold hundreds of bottles of All Hands sauce — fewer than 40 remain as of press time — sharing money with both the teens who made it and with nonprofit preschool the Downtown Child Development Center, which has already received $1,000.
“Every step of this hot sauce program is good for the community,” said the preschool’s development director, Rachel Kuchta. “The families working in the garden, the kids looking at entrepreneurial skills — and the proceeds are helping people.”
That said, the teens were also pretty happy to receive a share of the profits, Stephanie Afonja said, and also to be able to put up their “I Got the Sauce” music video on Youtube.
“Being in a video, you know, and having that video on YouTube, most of them are really, really excited about that part,” she said. (You can view the video online at bit.ly/hotsaucevideo.)
For Department of Human Services deputy director Sherrika Fulgham, who said she’s been watching the teens garden all summer out behind her agency’s office, the program has also shown good outcomes for teens who’ve had behavioral or anger issues.
Gardening helps reach teens in a different way than more traditional sports-based after school recreation programs, Fulgham said — in part because it’s more individualized and more meditative, but also because teens can see the results of the work they do.
“If you’re living in a low-income apartment complex, the ability to produce and assist in a garden — you don’t realize the impact that can have on young people,” Fulgham said. “They’re shocked: They planted this small seed, then it turns into tomatoes and peppers, and from the peppers it’s a hot sauce, and now a final product that’s being marketed. It’s a sense of pride.”