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MAT-Pro At Midtown Farmers Market

Giving young people experience, responsibility & a paycheck

Julian Bowens-Robinson of University City, a Knox College business student, waits on Tina Jones. His experience managing the Market Coffee Booth at the Midtown Farmers Market has given him business knowledge and supervisory experience. | photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
October 04, 2017
Not many students get jobs where they're able to work outdoors in the sunshine as Cajun, country or blues music fills the air. At a workplace where brightly-colored produce is piled high under cheery tents and smiling shoppers enjoy ice cream, falafel and quiche.

That's the workplace atmosphere for high school and some college students enrolled in the Market Assistant Training Program (MAT-Pro) at the bustling Midtown Farmers Market in the University City Loop business district.

Students meet farmers from the region who bring in their purple eggplants, beefsteak tomatoes, plump golden peaches, melons, mushrooms, micro-grains, kale, mustard greens and other foods fresh from the fields. The students learn about business and how a farmers market operates. At this urban and fun workplace, savory foods cook on the grill, kids get their faces painted, art is created and fresh flowers are for sale.

Deborah Henderson, managing director of the Midtown Farmers Market and executive director of the Midwest Association of Farmers Markets, started MAT-Pro in 2014. The program provides young people with work experience, responsibility and a paycheck.

University City High School junior Fatimah Olushola, right, works with Loryn Feliciano Nalic, chef/owner of Balkan Treat Box food truck, at the farmers market. | photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"MAT-Pro checks off so many areas that benefit everyone in the community," Henderson said. "It provides work experience as well as life lessons and personal growth opportunities for the students all in a supportive environment. The market schedule fits in well with both their summer activity and school schedules."

"Working with them is a lot of fun. It's very rewarding to see young people blossom and mature," Henderson said.

This year, Henderson received a $7,500 matching grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture to further develop MAT-Pro. Henderson said she used the state Urban and Non-Traditional Agriculture Matching Grant to improve the market facility, buy equipment and develop a detailed training manual for students.

The farmers market and University City High School have been cooperating since 2014 to provide jobs to diverse and minority students through MAT-Pro. Some students are referred through the high school's summer jobs program. The students typically work from April through November.

Julian Bowens-Robinson of University City, a two-year Midtown Farmers Market veteran, managed the Market Coffee Booth at the farmers market this summer.

At dawn each Saturday, he rode his bicycle a mile through city streets to work. He took up his station alongside farmers as well as local business food vendors and small fruit entrepreneurs. Bowens-Robinson helped sell jams, jellies and breads. Free-range eggs, grass-fed beef and trout were other offerings.

When he headed off to Knox College as a freshman business student in September, he already had some business knowledge and supervisory experience.

"It's definitely the best job I ever had," said Bowens-Robinson, who wants to own his own business some day. "The people are nice and it's a great place to be – in the Loop. We can work outside in the sunshine and we get to hear music at work.

"It also has taught me about face-to-face interactions with customers," Bowens-Robinson said. "And I get to work with coffee."

Lily Xu, a student at Washington University, assists University City residents (from left) Laurel, Corinne and Nathan Plumb at the market information booth. | photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
The coffee booth, sponsored by Park Avenue, draws crowds and in summer is especially popular for cold brew and lemonade.

As crew leaders, Bowens-Robinson and another student, Lily Xu, trained and mentored the new, younger students. Xu supervised the Market Information Booth.

Xu, a Washington University student who attended MICDS, also created a Chinese-English Translation Chart for the Mandarin-speaking senior citizens who come to buy food at the market. Some fruits are traditional in China. Xu has worked at the market for three years.

Other participants this year are University City High School senior Kameron Jordan, junior Fatimah Olushola and sophomore Ariana Culton.

MAT-Pro students are paid $60 each market day, which begins at 6:30 a.m. with a stand-up meeting and set-up and typically ends about 1 p.m. after clean-up. Salaries come from market earnings, and the salaries of two students this year are partially funded from the high school jobs program.

Kameron Jordan, left, is a senior at University City High School. Ariana Culton is a sophomore. The two are part of the MAT-Pro training program at the Midtown Farmers Market. | photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Jordan, the high school junior, will manage the coffee booth for the rest of this season.

"I've got everything under control," Jordan said on one recent market Saturday.

He likes meeting people from a variety of backgrounds, nationalities and races.

"It's a fun job," he said.

Culton greets customers and answers their questions at the information booth.

"I like meeting different people and seeing their faces and learning more about the farmers market every day," Culton said.

A teacher recommended that Olushola apply for a job at the farmers market. She's also at the information booth.

"It's never a boring job," Olushola said. She's happy to be in charge of the market Instagrams. "I like helping the people," she added.

Henderson said the students were "very creative and contribute great ideas to market operations." Each year, she likes to match the crop of students with their interests. For example, Xu was good at teaching and languages and so she did that work, Henderson said.

"Fatimah set up our Snapchat and both of them contributed to our Instagram and Facebook pages," Henderson said. "Kameron came up with a more efficient way to serve drinks in the Coffee Booth. Julian is interested in owning his own business some day and he got the experience of being in charge of the Coffee Booth."

As part of MAT-Pro, a St. Louis County Department of Health environmental specialist teaches the students about sanitation and food safety.

Midtown Farmers Market continues to expand its involvement with the high school. Culinary class students sometimes take part in chef's cook-offs, lively, tasty events that pack the market.

The Midtown Farmers Market will remain open through Nov. 11. The high school students plan to work until the end of the season – and maybe return when school lets out and the farmers deliver their fresh spring produce of asparagus, strawberries, radishes and onions.