Camp Salsa Shark Tank

By Billy Polansky

In June, Sarah Hughes, the Camp Salsa Program Director contacted me and asked if I wanted to be on a panel to hear groups of high school students pitch business plans for new brands of salsa. I would decide whether or not the groups should get microloans to startup their summer salsa enterprises. I was excited to hear the pitches and to be a shark in the shark tank.

Wild ideas are sometimes just that….but sometimes the wildness is what makes them great. Four years ago Jan Swaney told me about a project in Cleveland where kids grow a garden, then make and sell salsa using the veggies. At the time, I was sure this was a wild idea, but the more I thought about it, researched similar projects across the country and spoke with potential partners, the better it looked. In the Summer of 2014, the then-director of MU’s brand new Family Impact Center, Ashley Guillemette, and I put our heads together and pulled together a dynamic team of partners to create Camp Salsa. Today the project is led by the MU Family Impact Center with support from Columbia Public Schools, the City of Columbia’s CARE Program, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, and numerous local businesses.

On pitch day, at the Family Impact Center, twelve students were split into three groups. Each team had been working to develop their distinct brand of salsa. The pitches were complete with powerpoint presentations, colorful photos, and matching outfits. One even included a short comedy routine! The presentations were compelling and their products good. Someone once told me: “There’s got to be sizzle, it draws people in, but if you don’t have a steak to back up that sizzle, then people don’t come back.” These kids have the sizzle and the steak.

I was blown away by the thought these young adults had put into their products. The team pitching Stripe Salsa was decked out in their finest Mizzou gear. Their product is a yellow corn and black bean salsa and their target audience is none other than Mizzou sports fans. The group representing Sunny Salsa was wearing cool sunglasses. Their salsa is made with cut up oranges, and their tagline, “the brightest dip at the party”, suits the citrus flavor and their demographic focus of college-age students. The Spitfire Salsa team tried lots of recipes and tested them on family members to come up with a “sweet and spicy” chunky – but not too chunky – salsa. It is sweet out of the gates with a habanero kick that sneaks up on you.

During their presentations there was the stage fright you expect from teenagers who lack public speaking experience. However, each group was surprisingly supportive of each other – encouraging their teammates through awkward transitions, stuttering, and lost thoughts. Their behavior pushed aside any stereotypes I had about “the selfish teenager”. Camp was only three weeks in and these complete strangers had come together in small groups, worked through their egos, to come up with some great ideas.

When asked about their largest hurdle, the response was overwhelmingly some version of “Agreeing on what type of salsa to make” or “Agreeing on our brand”. Each group explained how they identified the strengths of their members and divided up duties to leverage those strengths. Students from each team told me that compromise helped their group come up with good solutions. They had to give up their own ideas for a different and better idea. This was powerful stuff coming from a group of high schoolers.

Back when Camp Salsa was just a wild idea, we thought it would be good exposure for the students, showing them that Columbia is full of possibilities as an entrepreneur, a gardener, or a chef. Now it is clear that this program goes way beyond that, these kids were developing their problem-solving skills and learning patience, gardening skills and learning about seasonal fruits and veggies. Hearing the students talk about profit per pint, the importance of local food, and teamwork put a smile on my face, it makes me glad that we decided take a walk on the wild side.

Camp Salsa is an eight-week program for high school students who get experience growing food at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s Urban Farm, learning about business development from local entrepreneurs, and starting their own microenterprise. Students get course credit through Columbia Public Schools and are paid a wage through the City’s CARE program.

Real Life in Opportunity Gardens

By Trish Woolbright

2017 has been the busiest season for Opportunity Gardens since it was founded in 2011. We have had more applications, more 2nd and 3rd year gardeners, more gardeners moving and needing assistance to rebuild and continue, and more gardens which are expanding…. everything is bigger and better!  With the beautiful, sunny weather we have sometimes built two gardens per day while also maintaining mentoring and relationships with all our other gardeners, old and new. It’s been difficult to get a breath lately to even appreciate how much work it is. Time flies when you’re having fun though, and it is fun! It’s hard, fun, and rewarding.

(By the time of publication, we had helped 47 NEW gardeners while continuing to work with 50 second and third year gardeners. We expect a pretty good sized graduation group this year!)

We’ve been sharing Opportunity Gardens stories lately to connect you to the families you help with your support, and I want to take a moment to get a little bit real because gardening, food, and hunger are all very real issues. Life is hard, gardening is not a passive activity, and poverty and all related issues make life even more difficult…which makes it even more important to tell the stories. I won’t deny that it feels awkward to share personal trials and joys that have been confided to me over the dirt.  However, these are my friends now, and I have their permission to tell you a bit about them so that we can make sure the program continues. I hope you can all connect in meaningful, respectful and creative ways. Our culture and times can be isolating and we are helping to make our yards, neighborhoods, and tables a bit more welcoming and abundant together.

I want to tell you a bit about what gardening is like in OG, what a typical season/day might bring, and some of why we love and are excited by it. This program means everything to a lot of people. If your life allows you to be able to empower others with support in the form of donations or time or goods, I’m very thankful and so are the Opportunity Gardeners.  Your support means the world to us!  But you also may not be aware of the daily struggle and why it’s such a big achievement to grow radishes, greens, and other veggies…. why it means so much to be able to do something for yourself on your own. I hope I can share a bit of that with you.

Feeding one’s family can be tricky. Many struggle with “What the heck is this? And how do I make it?” Time, money, access, and transport all come into play and can be barriers. On top of that, there are cultural and nutritional needs, allergies, and a multitude of food related diseases. And, of course, don’t forget Taste! FOOD IS GOOD and we love to eat delicious and nutritious things. Growing food ourselves, cooking with friends and family and neighbors, and feeling nourished and healthy can be our community’s roots. We can grow healthy together if given the opportunity.

Not every family has the same needs, and every yard is unique. I can’t do a package deal and drop it off, or build it for someone and leave. I can’t just pass out plants at a booth and hope it helps. Simply giving people things or doing the work for them does NOT help people make change. You must build relationships. You take the time to teach at someone’s individual pace, and you set them up with what they need to be successful. Everyone is different, and what one person needs for success is not what someone else may need. So, we meet people where they are with what they have, and we custom design their garden and mentoring plan. We take the time needed over a 3-year period help them learn to grow food independently.

The gardeners of Opportunity Gardens are a diverse community who are excited to garden and who want to feed their family and kids better. They want to eat better, and they want to feel better. Our gardeners are working towards this goal while they are also working several jobs, going to school, and maintaining a house. Some are raising children who are ill or have a mental or physical handicap. Many of our gardeners have a physical disability, and we work with them to find creative solutions so that we can make their gardens accessible. Sometimes a garden provides mental and emotional therapy to people with addictions, PTSD, or other mental illnesses.  It can also be a great place to have some alone time or to spend time with family. We are incredibly fortunate to garden with many international families who have been immigrants for school or work or who are refugees. Our international families teach us wonderful gardening skills and culinary traditions from their homelands. Gardening with previously incarcerated people and with those who have incarcerated loved ones makes us aware… and grateful… and patient. Our gardeners work multiple jobs, have large and small families, and are savvy, thrifty, and creative problem solvers. Their time is short, so gardening needs to be time accessible too. It can’t be too big or too complicated, and we must remember that everyone learns at a different pace and in a different way. We help them learn to garden through text messages, email, phone calls, in person visits, hands-on mentoring, our growing guide, Facebook, cook books, workshops, potlucks, and so much more. Our Garden Ambassadors and volunteers help us take the program a step farther.

Gardening isn’t easy, and we’re proud of our gardeners – who have found so much success in the face of hardship.  On top of whatever life has thrown their way, they face some of the worst soil conditions imaginable, weird placement in shady yards, burst water taps, and broken hoses. Sometimes you find glass in the soil… always… every day…. Glass. But still they persist, and they are rewarded with vegetables.  Sometimes my 3rd year gardeners, grow so much that they have to find ways to share it with their friends, families, and coworkers.  It’s a good thing we also teach food preservation!

Through all the health problems, the mental anguish, the people telling you that they can’t, we mentor. We get the appointments made and we work with our gardeners to teach them how to grow and cook their own food.

I want to make Opportunity Gardens available to absolutely as many people as I can. Our volunteers, donors, board, and staff have always fully supported this program, and the gardeners are all in and are dedicated to learning. It’s a successful program that is popular among gardeners. The effort behind it is just so amazing. Our goal this year is lofty, and we’ve faced some interesting challenges along the way. I’m tapping out my soil contacts and have had to switch lumber situations.  I’m using a tractor, a load handler, and our biggest truck to haul way more organic matter for more gardens than ever before. We have been pushing hard this year, to be honest, and because of that we may reach our goals. The best part is that we will get a whole lot of people growing a whole lot of food, and along the way they will be eating and sharing and experiencing a whole lot of interesting things while changing their lives and our community for the better.

When we sit down and take stock, looking through the notes and putting the data together, it shows that Opportunity Gardens is working. We want our gardeners to say, “I got this!” “I can feed my family now” “we garden together” “we have abundance”, and they do.  This is why we make the huge efforts to get the plants in the ground everywhere.

Every single time I put in a garden I have a neighbor come over to ask if they can have one too.

Every single time we have a successful gardener, they want to give back.


Because people in hard times know that it is important to help.

Because someone helped them.

Your help makes this possible. The ripple effects are huge. Your dollars and time and materials mean SO much to our gardeners. Thank you.

I hope you really understand the enormous meaning behind every square foot of the over 25,000 square feet of garden space we have created in Columbia through Opportunity Gardens. We don’t just give hope. Hope gives a person no agency for change. We give Opportunities. And that is where changes lives. Your help makes that possible.

Persistence and Patience

By Trish Woolbright and Kristin Frazier

OG From trish

I often wear a necklace stamped with the words “persistence and patience.” It’s a quiet reminder of two of the qualities I’ve found most necessary to succeed with anything in life.  Persistence, because sometimes you just have to keep moving forward, no matter what….and patience, because sometimes it just takes time – time and a lot of hard work.

Gardening is most certainly an activity that requires both persistence and patience – especially for new gardeners.  There is so much to learn, and there are so many things (like the weather) which are out of your control.  We all start with the best of intentions, but we are only rewarded with a bountiful garden if we are willing to do what it takes.

Tanya wanted to be healthier, and she thought that gardening would be a great way to make positive changes in her life.  As a bonus, gardening was something she could do with her child.  Tanya contacted CCUA and set up an appointment with Opportunity Gardens Manager Trish Woolbright so that she could begin her gardening adventure.

Soon after, Trish met Tanya at her home to evaluate her yard so that the two could start planning Tanya’s garden.  Right away, though, Trish spotted a problem.  Tanya’s yard was just too shady for a garden.  Fortunately, there was a community garden across the street.  Trish helped Tanya contact the community garden and arrange for her own plot.  Unfortunately, the plot Tanya was assigned was in what she and Trish termed “The Swamp Land.”  It was a rainy summer, and – as I’m sure you can imagine with a name like that – things did not go well.  Tanya was frustrated, her son was NOT inspired, and around August she gave up on the attempt.

Despite her early experiences, though, Tanya came back the next year even more determined to make it work.  This time she tried creating new bed styles and paid attention to what her neighbors were doing around her.  She learned, but every step was a swampy, difficult struggle.  Her garden didn’t flourish, and once again she lost heart.

Tanya’s garden may not have been successful during those first two years, but she was learning, and she was trying new things.  The best part was that Tanya was learning more and more about how to make vegetables into tasty dishes that her picky son would eat.  She was coming to food workshops, sharing cooking videos, looking up recipes, and more.  This new love of good food fueled her ambition…even if her gardening skills really weren’t quite there yet.

We had worried that she might give up, but Tanya contacted us once again in her third year, excited because she’d been given a much better plot in the community garden.  Tanya used all of the lessons she’d learned over the previous two years, increasing her garden size and planting lots of veggies, including cabbages.  Another 3rd year gardener and friend reached out to her and they teamed up to tend the garden.  The results were outstanding.  Tanya and her friend had an overwhelming abundance of food that year – so much so that she was able to take the extra to work to share with her friends in the break room.  That inspired her co-workers to apply for their own gardens, telling us how beautiful Tanya’s garden was!

Tanya is now in her first year of independent gardening, and has taken all that she learned in Opportunity Gardens to create the garden of her dreams.  She’s proud of her beautiful garden and of the delicious foods that she’s able to put on the table and share with her friends.  While we still swap recipes and tips, Tanya is able to obtain her own plants, soil, and straw, and is sharing the knowledge that she earned with other gardeners too.  Tanya’s persistence kept her going when others might have given up, and her patience was rewarded.

Gardening isn’t always easy the first time for everyone, and we are so proud of Tanya for sticking with it and learning how valuable it is. We know that we have empowered a gardener for life.

For more Opportunity Gardens Stories, be sure to check out the Beet archives.

New Beginnings

By Billy Polansky

For most people Rusk Rehabilitation Center is just another brick building on the Business Loop. Although if you’ve had a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or spinal cord injury, Rusk will turn your life back around. I visited Rusk on a cloudy Friday afternoon to visit with some of their therapists and patients who use Rusk’s Therapy Garden. I heard that the staff were using this garden quite a bit with their patients so I wanted to stop by and see it for myself. In Rusk’s courtyard I met with Nicole Jacomb an occupational therapist and Sylvester Franklin Jr., a spinal cord-injury patient. Franklin immediately expressed his gratitude for all of the staff and Rusk and told me “Rusk is my new beginning”. A few months back he was in an accident that had him in a bed at the University Hospital for two months, then he came to Rusk where he has been for the last six weeks. Before his accident he was athletic, he went to the gym, played football, and swam at the pool. As you can imagine, the last few months have difficult for Franklin who is now in a wheelchair.

Franklin told me it can be hard to find the motivation to get out of bed some days, but the therapy garden keeps him moving on the bad days. He went on to say that the garden and the staff at Rusk have taught him patience. Now that he has been upgraded to a power chair, Sylvester spends as much time as he can outside and in the garden. “It gets depressing in there. As soon as I’m done in the gym or with an activity, I fly outside to get a piece of the sun.” Sylvester said with a chuckle. Another patient, Shelly Jackson,  joined us in the courtyard, she agreed, “For me it’s the sunshine, it’s just fun to get out, I love sitting here and looking at the flowers”.

Jacomb gets her patients out of their room, and out of the hospital as often as she can “When the patients are outside, they really open up more than they would in their room.” The therapy garden is just another tool that she can use to engage patients and get them to do their occupational therapy exercises. Rusk’s courtyard has gardens in ground, in pots, and raised at various heights where patients can sit, squat, kneel, or stand. The variation in garden types can help patients who require a wheelchair or walker to practice managing their new device. “They push you hard, and will find all kinds of different ways to get you to do your exercises” said Franklin. Jackson is rebuilding her muscles to use a new prosthetic leg. She practices standing by using a garden bed raised four feet from the ground.

Work in the gardens can help build hand strength or fine motor skills when patients squeeze a hose nozzle, pull weeds, or plant small seeds. Nicole reminisced about a former patient who was a retired farmer. One day they were harvesting sweet potatoes and she couldn’t get him to come back inside, he wasn’t going to stop until the job was done, “I couldn’t get him to do the exercises in the gym but out here he was doing them without even knowing it”.

Franklin said that when his mom comes to visit him, they sit out in the garden and “she gets this smile on her face, I know she’s thinking of when she was younger and the time she spent with her family in the garden”. This courtyard and therapy garden brings people together and sparks conversations. It gets patients out of their rooms and lets them soak in some Vitamin D. The garden motivates, it isn’t just the physical exercise that benefits the patients, but to quote Franklin “it’s the mental and the physical”.

To me Rusk is a place of hope, it is a hospital where everyone knows they get to go home. Rusk is a place where people are entering a new chapter of their life, there are many uncertainties and frustrations, but there is a community of doctors, therapists, and patients who support and inspire each other.  Shelly told me “When I am out here it gets me excited for my own garden at home.” Thinking of the future, Franklin said, “I’m just ready for phase two.” I asked him what that meant and he nodded his head saying “It is when I start learning how to walk again.”

Two years ago Rusk’s Director of Therapy, Tori Sisson and Controller, Jeff Reese came up with the idea for a therapy garden. That fall the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture met with Jeff and Tori and helped start the Therapy Garden in the hospital’s courtyard. Reese said that since the garden was added and the landscaping improved, the courtyard has seen more people are spending time outside, “even staff on their lunch breaks”.


Shelly Jackson (right) told me “I love getting my hands in the dirt. The first time we came out here, they asked me if I wanted gloves, I said ‘NOPE’”


Sylvester Franklin Jr. admires herbs he planted in the Rusk Therapy Garden.


Building Gardeners, not just Gardens, with CCUA’s Opportunity Gardens Program

All winter long, gardeners dream of fresh spinach, carrots, and tomatoes…and when the spring finally comes around they are ready to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty!  This is especially true of new gardeners who are experiencing it all for the very first time.

We love helping people learn about growing their own food, and are happy to report that CCUA’s Opportunity Gardens Program is off to its biggest year yet.  Volunteers and the Opportunity Gardens crew have installed 29 brand new gardens so far, and there are more to come.  Our new gardeners are excited to learn and can’t wait to get growing!



If it’s not raining, we’re not training

Wednesday, July 13th, started with the boom of thunder. Staff and volunteers from CCUA, Lowes, United Way, the Mission Continues and the VA came together this dark, stormy morning with a vision of sunny, abundant days ahead.

This spring CCUA and the Columbia Housing Authority (CHA) were selected as the 2016 Lowes’ Heroes Project. The proposal was to build a garden and chicken coop at Patriot Place, Columbia’s newest apartment building for veterans.

Wednesday. The day to build the garden had come, the supplies were ready: lumber, soil, plants, mulch, benches and a chicken coop. Around 5:30am people began to congregate under the picnic shelter at Patriot Place, but then came the rain. The veterans present were reminded of a motto from the Army: “If it’s not raining, we’re not training.” Of course, on the day we’re building a garden at the bottom of an already-muddy hill, shifting winds bring us more precipitation.


A group of 30 community members shed lots of “sweat and mud” to build the Patriot Place garden.



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Important Meetings to mark on your Calendar!

Please plan to stop in at one of the following three important meetings:

  • August 6th from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Columbia Farmers Market
  • August 10th from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Activities Recreation Center (ARC)
  • August 13th from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Columbia Farmers Market

We need your help! Please help provide feedback and direction to some exciting developments on our planned collaboration with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, Columbia Farmers Market, and Sustainable Farms & Communities. Continue reading