The 17-year-old high school senior lives in a neighborhood south of downtown where crime is still high, police sirens are ever-present, and fast-food joints line the block. She rarely leaves the area, never once having been to the beach with her family.
But Maria Castro escaped her surroundings last summer and learned new ways to be healthy — physically and mentally. She did yoga and went to a beach in Santa Monica. She cooked organic food for war veterans in Escondido, connecting with their stories of violence and stress. She gave up chips and soda, ate vegetables she grew and noticed in herself new energy and shinier hair.
Last week, she and seven other South Los Angeles high school students showed off newfound skills as budding entrepreneurs. Dressed in black suits and crisp blue shirts, the students presented business plans for food products they created from their own hand-grown produce in an eight-week internship. Maria's product: an organic energy drink made from lemon grass and chia seeds — two plants she had never heard of before entering the program.
"I don't want kids' teeth to be rotting because of soda," said Maria, who attends Santee Education Complex, addressing educators, chefs and community members. "I really want to make a change in this world."
The internship was launched by the American Heart Assn. and the California Endowment, the state's largest health foundation. The organizations have helped create dozens of school gardens in L.A. Unified and other districts to use for math, science, nutrition and other lessons. But B. Kathlyn Mead, the health foundation's chief operating officer, wanted to take the garden projects one step further.
"Each of these kids live in communities where jobs are hard to find," Mead said. "So let them make their own jobs."
The curriculum to develop business and gardening skills was created by Lisbeth Caiaffa, a chef, master gardener and culinary arts instructor at Santee, and Melisa Nicola, also a chef and restaurant owner who volunteers at the school. The packed schedule included guest speakers on product development, time management, market research and sales strategies. There were visits with Native Americans to learn about medicinal herbs, ex-gang members in food service jobs at Homeboy Industries and farmers at local markets.
To control stress, the students learned yoga, along with Zumba and swimming. And they studied nutrition and the science of gardening using Santee's extensive school plot, which produces more than 75 kinds of fruits and vegetables — including kale, lemon grass, eggplant, watermelon and passion fruit.
Like Maria, most of the students said they wanted their products to improve the health of Latinos and African Americans, who suffer from disproportionately high rates of diabetes and obesity. Nancy Ramirez, a senior at Manual Arts High School, developed baked kale chips seasoned with lemon and jalapeno — choosing flavors familiar to the Latino palate in the hope of weaning teens from one of their favorite junk foods.
"I want to take out Hot Cheetos," said Nancy, who hopes to run her business on the side while attending college to become a teacher. "We have to start educating our community because obesity and diabetes are overtaking us."
Her business plan for "Kool Curly Kale" estimates that $10,400 is needed in start-up funds to sell $2 bags of chips at school events and, ultimately, nationwide through online distributors.
Tony Salas, a 17-year-old senior at Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School, created a healthful twist on a Mexican shaved ice treat, raspado, by using distilled lemon grass tea, pureed mango and coconut milk rather than sugar-packed syrup. His company, "Let's Get Shaved," requires an estimated $6,243 in start-up costs as it aims to become "the premier authentic Hispanic healthy and fresh raspado seller in Los Angeles," according to his business plan. He hopes to roll out his raspado at the Hollywood Farmers Market.
For Cecilia Lorenzo, a Manual Arts senior, the quest to develop a healthy food product — Strawberry Soup — was inspired by her mother's battles with chronic obesity, asthma, diabetes and high cholesterol. Perhaps, Cecilia said, her cold organic soups can help restore her mother's health and prevent others from suffering similar diseases.
Cecilia, who plans to study biology at UCLA and become an emergency-room doctor, said the internship's yoga was her most memorable experience. She said she had never heard of the practice but it helped ease the stress of caring for five younger siblings, especially when her mother was hospitalized.
Other products students pitched: organic salad by Angel Palma; Super Green juice made of kale, chocolate mint and other fresh produce by Michelle Gil; olive and roasted red pepper tapenade by Diana Gonzalez; lavender-flavored cookies and bath products by David Mera.
Students said test sales at school have gone well. But no investors have yet stepped forward, although one graphic artist has offered to donate a design consultation.
Maria — whose Natural Organic Energizer firm requires nearly $70,000 in start-up funds to produce 4,000 bottles — said the program experience has changed her life and fueled her entrepreneurial juices. She said she plans to continue looking for business opportunities while studying forensic anthropology next year — preferably at Cal State Humboldt, her first choice.
"I have a great opportunity to create another product up there," she said, adding that Humboldt's natural beauty would inspire her. "I want to make something big and change the world."