Salad Days

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

KETRIC JENKINS, 16, KNOWS HE HAS AN American history term paper due tomorrow, but right now the 11th grader is wrestling with a major math problem. "It's frustrating," he sighs, examining his company's latest bank statement. "We get a printout of sales from the bank, then tally up our invoices only to find out they're double what we're bringing in. Sometimes you can't make money for having to spend it."

For Jenkins and 37 of his class-males at Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles, the shortfall between cash on hand and money owed is more than a textbook hypothesis—the numbers on their bottom line are real. They are managing Food from the 'Hood, the country's first student-run, not-for-profit natural-foods company.

What started as a small vegetable plot has now blossomed into a firm that wholesales salad dressing through more than 2,000 stores in Southern California, including Vons and Lucky, two of the state's largest supermarket chains. Despite Jenkins' worries, the project is on target to sell 30,000 cases of its creamy Italian dressing by mid-1995, and it is expected to bring in $100,000 for a college scholarship fund for those participating in the program.

In May 1992 the neighborhood surrounding Crenshaw High was ravaged during the L.A. riots. That summer biology teacher Tammy Bird and her students planted some vegetables next to the school's football field to revitalize the area. By October of that year the urban fanners were cultivating a quarter-acre, growing squash, tomatoes, collard greens and herbs—a portion of which they sent to local homeless shelters. Then Melinda McMullen, a Los Angeles public-relations executive who had read about the garden, suggested that the students sell the vegetables to build up a scholarship fund, but after the first year they had only $600 in the bank.

To be successful, the students needed another way to raise cash. "We wanted to empower the students by giving them a stake in the results of the project," McMullen says. "Since the garden was full of lettuce, why not make the stuff that goes on top?"

The concept was an unabashed copy of Paul Newman's line of food products, which has raised more than $56 million for charity since 1982. Participating students at Crenshaw became "owners" of the firm, accumulating points based on academic achievement and volunteer work that can be converted into scholarship money upon graduation.

For six months, Bird's biology class experimented with various recipes. They sent the results to a food chemist for analysis. "One version was too sally," says Jaynell Grayson, 16, "so we changed the recipe. Our community has a problem with heart disease, and we didn't want to contribute to it."

Meanwhile the project was attracting high-profile support. Norris Bernstein, founder of Bernstein's salad dressings, provided marketing advice. The kids from Crenshaw then met with grocery executives to persuade them to carry their new product. The retailers signed on because they were impressed with the taste and quality of the dressing. "If any item has the potential to make it, this one does," says Harold Rudnik, senior vice president of Vons. "They've researched it enough to know the flavor they chose was right." By April a local salad dressing company began producing and shipping 12-ounce bottles of Straight out 'the Garden dressing to stores, carrying a retail price of $2.59.

Now that the dressing has finally hit the shelves, Grayson, a part-time clerk at the local Lucky supermarket, keeps her eye on sales. "Some days I'll be putting up potato chips in the aisle next to the salad dressing, and I'll hear people saying, 'Hey, this is made by the kids at Crenshaw. Get some, girl,' " she says, laughing. After spotting a purchase, "I wind up dancing around in front of the store, and everyone looks at me like I'm crazy. But I know my manager understands."

JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles

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