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Innovation & Job News

New City Urban Café: Social enterprise empowers and builds community


Alaina Dobkowski



In the fight for empowerment of community youth, New City Neighbors, an organization in the Creston Neighborhood working to build meaningful community and urban renewal projects for youth in the neighborhood, is using a social enterprise model to launch their newest endeavor, New City Urban Café and continue to empower youth from the Creston Neighborhood through employment and leadership development opportunities. New City Urban Café opened its’ doors on July 13 of this year, serving wood-fired pizzas, soups, and salads made by high school student staff from New City Farm produce. The cafe also features baked goods made by the New City Bakery program, a job skills and leadership training program for middle school students.
 
Overall, in 2016 New City Neighbors hired 29 high school students to work in the farm, the bakery and the after school program. The farm and cafe is employing 15 high school students this summer, and will employ six during the school year. Additional, high school students will be employed in New City Neighbors' elementary afterschool and summer day camp programs. 
 
“Our employment and leadership opportunities are the first building blocks for their resumes and college applications. Being employed in high school gives students greater hope for future job prospects and encourages them to stay engaged in their education,” shares Alaina Dobkowski, executive director of New City Neighbors.
 
For New City Neighbors, the social enterprise model is not anything new. When Lance Kraai was hired as Farm Director for New City Urban Farm in 2012, the farm was an empty lot behind Fourth Reformed Church. Kraai saw the promise of possibility and life in the land. He saw the empty lot as an opportunity to help employ youth from the neighborhood, grow, harvest and sell  food for their community.  

New City Neighbors is located in a United States Department of Agriculture designated food desert in Grand Rapids. In other words, a significant large number of the neighborhood residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.   
 
The farm uses the community supported agriculture model to sell produce to 180 shareholders, while offering customers the option to pay with food stamps and participate in the Double Up Food Bucks program.
 
“We are able to create opportunities for families to access fresh produce that is grown in their own neighborhood,” explains Dobkowski.
 
New City Urban Café brings it all to full circle, shares Dobkowski. By adding a kitchen into the farm programming, employed youth are able to complete their journey from seed to plate.
 
“Growing leeks is one thing, but growing, cooking, and eating leeks is another. We also wanted to incorporate more cross-age partnership and mentoring. By bringing the kitchen work of the high school students and adding it to the existing bakery program of the middle school students, New City Cafe provides a space for students of different ages to work together and learn from each other,” says Joel Schramm, Farm & Kitchen Manager.
 
For Schramm, the success of the program has been due to the social enterprise model that allows for a  diversification of funding.
 
“While we work hard to create and maintain relationships with donors, the revenue stream of our enterprises gives us a little more financial sustainability. It is also possible that constantly considering things with a business perspective has been one of the aspects of our organization that has made us lean and responsible with our money,” says Schramm.
 
At New City Urban Café, you can expect middle and high school students learning job skills to provide every customer with a high quality product, served in a professional manner.  Outside, you will see a three-acre working farm with high school students learning to grow, and harvest produce. Inside, you will find dozens of elementary youth studying, building relationships, and having fun.
 
New City Urban Café is open every Thursday until August 10, 12-6:30 pm. The café is located on 1226 Union Avenue NE.

Michelle Jokish Polo is Rapid Growth's On The Ground Editor. To connect with Michelle, you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
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