Local nonprofit teaches students to farm and cook

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SAN DIEGO -- Most people have heard of farm to table, but what about crop to catering?

The local nonprofit UrbanLife is working to empower students in City Heights and southeast San Diego to become knowledgeable about the culinary profession and ultimately to become leaders in their city.

It starts with the farms created in vacant lots in City Heights and southeast San Diego.

"In lower-income neighborhoods, like southeast, there is an excess of empty lots, and right now with the drought and everything, the best use of the land is to grow more food, especially in communities where food access is a problem," said Amanda Jordan-Starks, UrbanLife program director.

The vacant lot-turned-farm is now being used to grow kale, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, mulberries, peas, broccoli, squash and more.

"This is my first job and I actually enjoy it," said Josue Rendon, a student participant from Diego Hills Charter School.

Local students are hired and paid to till and harvest the land. Some of the fruits and veggies are then sold locally, but the lessons far exceed the crops.

"It teaches you how to work well with others," said Lincoln High senior Cheyenne Brown.

They then learn all about the food and how to cook it.

"We're really trying to instill in them the leadership skills so they can take over and become the leaders," said Joshua Kemble, who heads the culinary training program.

They have also started catering local events for community members.

"They find out what we're doing and they say, 'Oh can you do weddings or baby showers?’'" said Kemble. "I'll take the students and we'll do the food and catering service."

Kemble says local restaurants are taking notice.

"People have approached me about hiring [the students] on to their staff," Kemble said.

The students said they're gaining life skills one crops, one event at a time -- and it's fun.

"You get a lot of opportunities," said Josue Rendon.

Rendon hopes to become a third-grade teacher. He says his experience with UrbanLife Ministries has fueled his passion for teaching.

Amanda Jordan-Starks, who heads the UrbanLife program, said her hope is the students who participate feel prepared to take on employment and leadership roles, but that's not all.

"I hope they know that there is a community that loves them," she said.

The organization is hosting a fundraiser Sunday at La Jolla Presbyterian, where local students will be cooking with local chefs. The money raised will benefit UrbanLife.