Spices from school to supermarket

One small group of Ashland High School students is bringing some extra zest to local grocery stores and gaining some business experience along the way.

Students in the Transition Center alternative program started selling spice blends under the "Spice of Life" label at the Ashland Food Cooperative and Shop'n Kart in February to learn basic money management and life skills. On Thursday afternoon, they handed out samples of lentils and pasta sauce seasoned with their latest creations to Co-op customers.

The Co-op agreed to host the students and shelf their products, which cost $1.99 each, because it fits the store's local principles, grocery manager Lynne Scionti said.

"We are a community store, so we support community projects," she said. "It tastes good too."

The students have created four blends so far — Mexican, Cajun, Italian and a sweet and mild curry — that were designed to be sold alongside rice and bean mixes sold by students in a similar program at Phoenix High School.

Transition Center teacher Kate Sullivan modeled the business after the long-running program in Phoenix to teach her students business skills such as banking and budgeting, as well as a host of other skills such as cooking and people skills when they making deliveries. She created the parent company PRISM (Products by Responsible Independent Student Managers) Enterprises to help the business grow and allow students to explore other business opportunities in the future, such as offering car washes for high school staff or selling bouquets for Mother's Day, she said.

"This is an alternative program, and we're learning life skills," she said. "The best way to learn life skills is to actually do the work."

Before production began, students voted on the company name and decided which spices to make. The Cajun blend — a mixture of garlic, pepper, cayenne, thyme, basil and salt — was developed to complement student Magdala Graham's rice and beans recipe from her native country of Haiti.

Students interviewed for job positions, which include mixing, weighing, packaging and labeling the product. The class works about two hours per week, and each student received his or her first paycheck on Friday, about $7 to $10 apiece.

Students are paid with half of the profits, and the remaining money is divided between reinvestment in the business and a savings account for each student in the classroom bank to help them develop personal finance skills.

Business growth has been slow because of the economy, Sullivan said, but the paycheck isn't the main motivation. Students said they just like working alongside their friends.

"I just get to be with my friends, and the teachers are really nice, and we're like family," Siobhan Carolan, 17, said. "It's really fun just doing it in general. We get to hang out and listen to music while doing it."

She was excited to visit the Co-op and watch customers start sampling. A few minutes after setting up, the demonstration kiosk had a steady stream of eager taste-testers.

"It's a little nerve-racking, but it's fun," Carly Cottle, 16, said as she dished up more Italian-seasoned pasta.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.

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