Last summer, students in the Mentoring Positives and PEOPLE programs developed a frozen pizza prototype to be marketed as Off the Block pizza. From left are Malia Green, Evelyn Walker, Demetria Prewitt and Bryan Xiong.

Last year, a Madison summer program worked with teens to make frozen pizzas from scratch to help them build business and cooking skills.

Before the pizzas, Malia Green hadn’t had much experience cooking. She’d only really ever made boxed brownies and mac n’ cheese, she said.

But months spent perfecting the pizza dough gave her new skills, and now she's excited about the program’s next step: A job program that includes expanding to a full-blown business operating out of Madison’s future Public Market.

“(That) would make me feel proud, because we started from what little we had and we’re starting to make it bigger,” she said.

The pizza project has been a cooperative effort between University of Wisconsin Extension, UW-Madison’s PEOPLE program and Mentoring Positives, a nonprofit in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood that serves at-risk youth.

For years, Mentoring Positives has produced Off the Block salsa, now sold in Metcalfe’s Markets. It started as a fundraising effort and, as the name suggests, a way to keep kids off the streets.

It was originally made with tomatoes and peppers grown by neighborhood teens in a community garden, although it has since outsourced production.

Last summer, PEOPLE interns and three middle-school students at Mentoring Positives tackled a similar project by creating a recipe for pizza and writing a business plan to market it.

Will Green, Malia's father and founder of Mentoring Positives, saw the pizza’s potential and Donale Richards, an intern with UW-Extension, stayed on through the school year to continue helping the middle school students perfect the recipe.

This summer, the project is funded by a SEED grant from the city of Madison, which will allow the same three students from last summer to create a “mini mass production” of 200 pizzas to help figure out cost models, Will Green said.

The pizzas will debut at the Peace Walk in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood on Aug. 24, but the bigger vision is to bring the pizza and salsa to the Public Market and grocery stores like Metcalfe’s, Will Green said.

“We are right up the block from this Public Market and man, it’s just going to be a space that I know kids are going to thrive in,” he said.

Mentoring Positives has applied for the Madison Public Market’s MarketReady program, which aims to develop vendors from underrepresented communities for the market, slated to open in early 2019. It would provide two years of training, technical assistance and grants of up to $14,000 for potential market vendors. Eighty-three vendors have applied for 30 available spots.

Before that, Mentoring Positives has to iron some logistical details, Will Green said. Richards is working to license the product, and storage is an issue. While salsa can sit on a shelf, pizza has to be frozen or quickly sold. It’s still up in the air as to whether the pizza would be sold frozen or hot and by-the-slice. Will Green likes the idea of serving hot pizza.

“It just sounds so much more inviting and fun for the kids,” he said.

The three girls have come a long way since the beginning of the project, Richards said. Malia Green and Demetria Trewitt are in middle school and Evelyn Walker will be a freshman in high school next year.

“They didn’t necessarily understand what agriculture was to begin with,” Richards said.

They’ve since taken ownership of the project, Richards said, and he has delegated special tasks to each of them: sauce specialist, dough specialist and topping specialist. They can list off what they’ve learned, like the necessity of sanitizing work spaces and the call for consistency.

“You need to press the dough the same amount so the pizza doesn’t turn out different,” Trewitt said.

Will Green also wants to give them the soft skills they’ll need in their careers. He’s seen many kids who can get jobs, but can’t keep them because they lack communication and conflict resolution skills.

“I’m more concerned with the kid’s social-emotional makeup,” he said.

Trewitt said she learned about the importance of communication. If one of them is confused about something, they learned to ask each other for help, she said.

The girls are also picking up a fair amount of business acumen. Richards taught them about cost analysis, marketing strategy, business plans and sourcing options, even bringing them on field trips to local farms around Dane County.

“(We want) to get kids involved in making food products, because we want them to be social entrepreneurs,” Richards said.

“I want them to dream; I want them to be their own bosses,” Will Green said. “I want them to think about things that people make in this world and sell it to people.”

The girls are excited about the idea of seeing their products on the shelf, and Will Green is excited about how that would empower them.

“Boy oh boy, it is magnificent to give our kids the opportunity to be in control of food systems,” he said.