Doron Comerchero is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever interviewed. He’s the founder and director of the audaciously named FoodWhat?!—simplified for practical everyday use to FoodWhat—a program that empowers at-risk teenagers through the hands-on process of growing food. Thanks to a vision that can only be called transformative, Comerchero and his team have energized alliances between youth and righteous food production, from growing and harvesting to cooking and marketing. With an impressive 10-year track record under its belt, FoodWhat’s horizons keep growing.
In his late 30s, the charismatic Comerchero could easily pass for one of the teenagers in his program. Working in community gardens in the South Bronx, his future quickly took shape.
“I saw what youth could get out of growing food, learning experientially,” he says. “I saw and felt that my passion was there. I love teens—the rawness, the drama, the humor. And I knew I was good with youth.” He enrolled in UCSC’s renowned Agroecology program (CASFS) in 2004, and after his intensive apprenticeship, and some more time in the East, Comerchero returned to Santa Cruz in 2006 with a brilliant idea.
Soquel native and lifelong proponent of experiential education Gail Harlamoff recalls being approached by former CASFS apprentice Comerchero. “He talked to me about this great program he had—a youth program based up at the UCSC Farm—and said it should be a part of Life Lab,” the nonprofit garden classroom that has been headquartered on the UCSC Farm since 1988.
“It was a perfect fit for us,” Harlamoff recalls. “My goal was to stretch the impact of Life Lab, his concept was to include older youth. So we rolled what became FoodWhat into what we did.”
Comerchero enlisted a community garden colleague from the New York days, Abby Bell, to join his staff. Bell volunteered the first year, and then played “an integral role in the growth and success of our operation since then. Her title was Farm and Culinary Manager, throughout the past 10 years she was way more than that,” Comerchero acknowledges gratefully. He had formed links with the Homeless Garden Project, which was willing to have his teens come work in their garden. He needed an umbrella organization and credits Harlamoff as key to making the FoodWhat program a reality. In turn, FoodWhat extended Life Lab’s hands-on learning beyond the grade-school level.
Harlamoff—who spent almost 20 years with Life Lab, 11 of them as executive director—devoted herself to developing the pathbreaking program for hands-on field learning until a few years ago when she started up Westside Farm & Feed. She recalls Comerchero as “always being persuasive, and because of that, we were able to approach funders and expand the program. At first, Life Lab was the fiscal sponsor, then we did joint fundraising for FoodWhat.”
Comerchero strategized, networked, and listened. “I was so networked after two years of the program that I had learned who to call to expand the program,” he says. His brilliance and his incandescent smile probably didn’t hurt. In addition to Harlamoff, he initially called on Robert Acosta of the Teen Center, Christof Bernau of the UCSC Farm, and the Webster Foundation, which gave FoodWhat its first grant.
Field of Dreams
Taking in the sparkling Monterey Bay backdrop and strolling the gardens and prep areas used by the FoodWhat interns at the UCSC Farm, it’s impossible not to be convinced by Comerchero’s vision.
“We bring in low-income kids in need from all over Santa Cruz County. We have two farm sites, the Santa Cruz site on the UCSC Farm and Live Earth Farm in Watsonville,” he says. “Our internships alternate between the two sites in spring, and we work on both sites in the fall.”
The template is simple and effective. “Food and agriculture are our tools, and our approach uses an empowerment lens. We look at every aspect of food,” he says. “The system involves growing, harvesting, processing, cooking, and selling. And the secret sauce of this is the holistic approach. Our youth experience all the different opportunities to connect with food, then they start to make the diet shift away from junk food. Slowly”—he flashes a playful grin—“we introduce them to vegetables.”
From the Ground Up
“The diet change by the end of a year is astronomical,” Comerchero tells me, his voice filled with the sort of energy that inspires positive change. For the 50-60 core participants it works like this: “Spring internship runs once a week for three hours, March, April, and May. That’s one hour of farming, one hour of youth empowerment, and one hour cooking and eating. We all eat together. They get two credits in school, plus a $175 stipend upon completion,” says Comerchero. “They love it!”
Comerchero and his program manager Abby Bell went out to the schools to select participants based on application and interview. “We’re serving the most ever this year,” he says. “The demand for this kind of programming is huge.”
Twenty from the spring core group are hired on for the summer, plus four from the past program hired to serve as junior staff—FoodWhat is built upon peer-to-peer training. The program is full-time in the summer, eight weeks, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. “And the youth are paid minimum-wage salaries,” Comerchero says. “Summer is really job training.”
Comerchero believes another component of the program’s success is personal growth. “These teens are at a competitive disadvantage in the larger world. Here they grow the food and bring food home through a family CSA. We do a lot of listening. We ask the youth what they want, and have them critique the program. We stay within youth culture and that’s why we’re relevant.”
In the fall, FoodWhat teens apply what they’ve learned out in the real world—catering, flower stands, harvest festival events, food management. “A small crew continues through the winter, teaching to their peers in the high schools,” Comerchero says. “Workshops like ‘Trace Your Taco’ and ‘What You Drink, What You Think’ reach hundreds of high school students in South County. The workshops bring nutrition and food justice awareness to youth peer-to-peer. It’s a big hit for students to see their peers presenting. It helps to pay it all forward.”
Two big annual events, the Harvest Festival and the Strawberry Blast, serve to show off the participants’ progress to the larger community while demonstrating the network between food and the Earth.
“What does healthy food taste like? Many of these kids never knew where their food came from, and now they know about food systems,” the founder says with pride. The enviable track record of the program stands upon a broad foundation—the funders, the organizers, and especially upon the courageous and hard-working teenage interns, most of whom begin the program with no idea of just how much their lives will be changed by the challenges involved.
Adrian Francisco Nuñez Roman admits that his young life had its share of sketchy conflicts before a health teacher told him about FoodWhat.
“Doron came to my school, and at first I thought he was pretty weird,” says the 18-year-old Watsonville resident with a laugh. “But once I got into the program, I realized that having a family here was the best thing in my life. I did a 180 in my life. Doron is a fantastic leader. He is really what makes this organization succeed.”
Roman’s lifestyle changes have been huge. “I used to have alcohol and drug use problems. There’s lots of diabetes in my family, and FoodWhat helped me understand my eating habits. Now I eat more consciously. I love vegetables now. I even quit smoking because they said it hurt the tomatoes!”
Roman just completed the entire year program, got a job and is looking forward to starting college in mechanical engineering next year. “I was inspired to learn how the oil industry has influenced food production—we need to create sustainable food networks right here,” he says.
Roman, like most of the FoodWhat alumni, stays connected to the program by joining in the annual events. “Once you’ve built relationships here, you keep in touch,” he says.
Another alumna of the program is 17-year-old Aaliyah Wilson, who is just about to graduate from Costanoa High School and looks forward to starting up a specialty landscaping business. By any measure an impressively self-assured and articulate young woman, Wilson completed the FoodWhat cycle and has now returned as one of four junior staff who facilitate the peer-to-peer teaching strand of this innovative program.
“A lot of people come back and hang out with us,” she says. “We’re all a group of friends, we help each other out.”
Training youth leaders is built into the very DNA of the program. “I had just turned 16 when Doron and Abby came to my class at Costanoa,” Wilson says. “I felt it was a new opportunity, a great opportunity—after all, it was a once-a-week internship at the farm. They taught us to grow and cook the food we’ve grown, how to better ourselves, plus there was a $175 stipend if we completed the program.” Her eyes roll.
Wilson told me she had to interview to enter each next stage of the program. “It’s important to have that confidence to speak to people. We learned how to prepare a job application. So important,” she says.
The program is rigorous, but without judgmental pressure. “You can decide to stop wherever you feel you need to. Each step offers its own fulfillment,” she says. “You apply each time for the next stage. In the summer, you get up early and work a full day, Tuesday through Friday. The junior staff, we act as the bridge between the experienced staff managers and the newcomers. I worked the farm stand at Gault Elementary School. We offered low-cost food, it was a once-a-week winter job.”
The response from grade-schoolers and their families was enthusiastic. “We were community educators—this was my favorite part—going into schools and teaching about ingredients, getting people to make conscious choices.”
Wilson credits FoodWhat with the confidence that helped her get her message across.
“By interviewing and applying for each stage of the FoodWhat program, you get confidence with expressing yourself,” she says. “And junior staff are close to the teenagers’ own age—it helps facilitate conversation. It’s not like you’re working at Target with a huge age range. Here there’s a group of same-age friends. It’s a safe place to discuss issues.”
Wilson believes that FoodWhat is a very personal experience and that in order to expand the program, more staff and more land sites would be needed. “[It] has made me a powerful person. I understand better why the world is how it is and what I can do to impact it, even if it just begins with a conversation about food or what I eat.”
Wilson admits that she had school problems and tribulations—“I’ve already had my dark time and I got that over with.” Now she wants to take business classes in order to develop her own landscaping company involving useful and edible crops. “I want to be able to do things in the simplest way,” she explains. “For an organic garden, all I need is some lumber, seeds, and dirt and I’m good to go! We all need to eat, and growing your own food is growing your own power.”
How does Doron Comerchero see the future of the transformative program at the end of its first 10 years? “We’re exploring many options and engaging in numerous conversations around potential new partnerships and programming. Our number one goal is to grow and deepen our Watsonville program. We particularly want to work with youth connected to farm worker families,” he says. “Over the next 10 years, FoodWhat will make moves to both expand the number of youth we serve and continue to further deepen programming.” Comerchero is keenly aware that the heart of the program is its hands-on intimacy, the personal bonds created among all of the participants—young people who work, cook, and eat meals together. That tight sense of camaraderie and trust will be a challenge to maintain in a larger program, but the FoodWhat founder remains optimistic: “We will scale the program to serve with the same depth.”
Much will depend upon funding. And cloning Doron Comerchero.
Oh, and about that crazy, memorable name: “I asked one of my roommates at the time and he very sarcastically said ‘you should just call it Food, Whaaaat?’” says Comerchero. “Perfect.” He tried it out on the first teen in the program. “He didn’t even need a second to choose our current name. It has attitude, it has pride, it’s super fun to say. It asks a question that needs to be asked.”