This weekend, Off the Block salsa will hit the shelves at Metcalfe’s Market, fulfilling the six-year dream of the young men growing and producing it in the low-income Darbo-Worthington neighborhood.
The boys, now men, named the salsa for the hope and path it provides for getting themselves off the streets, off the block and out of trouble. Each jar bears the slogan: “From our hood to your table.”
“Anyone who’s ever tasted it — it has a phenomenal taste, it’s made locally,” said Tim Metcalfe, president of Metcalfe's. “They’re really just a bunch of really great kids that are kind of doing this on the side with the hope that someday, if this takes off, it becomes a venture for young men and for Mentoring Positives.”
The business has launched out of Mentoring Positives, a program Will and Becky Green founded in 2004 to serve at-risk Dane County youth.
Will Green said he had gone through a sustainability leadership program at Edgewood College, learning about urban agriculture. Shortly after, a community activist came to him suggesting salsa as a way to get kids in the neighborhood working on something.
The boys were reluctant to farm at first, but with Green’s relationship through Mentoring Positives, he was able to coax them into growing tomatoes and peppers. The boys started some business planning, came up with the name and, right from the start, had the goal of getting it into stores some day.
“Six years later, here it is, about to go in Metcalfe’s,” Green said.
They’ve had different partners throughout, growing for a couple years on the “edible acre” by Holy Cross Church on Milwaukee Street and, this year, working with Farm Market Kitchen in Algoma to meet the higher demand.
“Our plan and hope would be to get back to Madison, to be able to grow all our produce here, use a kitchen,” Green said.
Metcalfe said he first heard about the salsa when he was watching a local Sunday morning show. The packaging and story struck him, so the next morning he found the group on the Internet and emailed Green to meet with them.
“I said, ‘I think it’ll sell, I’d love to carry it, when can I order?’” Metcalfe said.
It’s taken Off the Block a while to bring it to market, working with partners and agencies to raise money and increase production, but, last week, Green emailed Metcalfe to tell him the product was ready. Metcalfe posted the news on his Facebook page, getting more than 100 likes.
“Part of eating at meal time, being with family, is telling stories,” Metcalfe said. “And being together for New Year’s Eve, it’s not just salsa anymore that’s in the middle of the table, it’s local salsa. And here’s the story behind it. To me that’s what makes local food so special.”
When the program started, some of the boys were 15 or 16 years old, so now they’re in their early 20s. The goal of the program is to get them jobs, something to produce and keep them from taking “penitentiary chances,” as Green puts it.
Green said it’s been an up-and-down struggle, but when kids do take one of those chances, he’s there as a mentor to help them out.
“You made a mistake, let’s pick you up and dust you off and get you back on the road,” Green said.
And as Off the Block hits stores and continues to grow, he hopes the effort will turn into sustainable jobs for these young men.
“These guys really care about people. They’re compassionate, they try to make the right decisions,” Green said. “They are still thriving here in the community, they’re helping out with the program and they’re ready to have this salsa in the store.”