Helping People

Growing healthy kids, healthy foods

Julie Frans, from Green Gardens, reaches out to Dylan Turken, to let her smell one of the herbs grown in the garden of North Beach Elementary School, Wednesday, October 21, 2015. Jennefer Mercado, from Jugofresh (center top with hat) represents the company in their initiative for a dozen school gardens.
Julie Frans, from Green Gardens, reaches out to Dylan Turken, to let her smell one of the herbs grown in the garden of North Beach Elementary School, Wednesday, October 21, 2015. Jennefer Mercado, from Jugofresh (center top with hat) represents the company in their initiative for a dozen school gardens. wmichot@miamiherald.com

Just as you need fertile soil to sprout a seed, to grow a healthy community, “you need to make an impact with kids,” said jugofresh CEO Matthew Sherman.

Healthy kids and a healthy community was Sherman’s goal before launching jugofresh in 2012, back when he and Darren Laszlo, better known as Chef Paco, began by making juice in Sherman’s kitchen. Now there’s nine South Florida jugofresh locations offering cold-pressed organic juice, vegan salads and smoothies and a great green vibe. The seed for growing wellness grew this summer into jugofresh’s new initiative, Lil’ Gardens, Big Future, dedicating to funding, planting and sustaining edible gardens in a dozen Miami-Dade public schools.

He tapped friend, chef and farm-to-table advocate Julie Frans to act as program director, “to take his vision and run with it,” Frans said. They’ve already established three gardens at Natural Bridge Elementary, Little Carver and North Beach Elementary, where Frans’ two children, Cassidy, 5, and John, 6, attend. “I like to be involved in their school,” said Frans, who also serves as the school’s resident chef. “To take what I’m doing there and create that in other schools — that’s my passion.”

While Sherman credits Chef Paco with the idea of “helping kids find a better way of eating,” wellness and nutrition for all ages is a personal mission for him, too. Lean, toned and bright-eyed now, “I weighed 360 pounds at one point,” the former personal trainer recalled. “I wasn’t taught how to eat. I had to learn at 21.”

Sherman earmarked a minimum of $25,000 for Lil Gardens, Big Future, and hopes to keep it going. The program is funded entirely through a percentage of jugofresh proceeds from store openings and through the sale of a specially created and designated Lil’ Gardens, Big Future juice —organic apple juice blended with the green goodness of organic parsley, kale and celery. The 8-ounce juice — a shorty in jugofresh speak — sells for $5 and debuted in jugofresh locations Nov. 9.

Frans, who sources the plants, garden supplies and irrigation systems through Ready-to-Grow Gardens and Little River Coop, two local organic farms, said it costs roughly $3,000 to establish a new school garden and up to $1,000 to expand an existing garden or restore one that’s languished. With a full teaching schedule plus the demands of the FCAT, faculty can’t always take on the demands of maintaining a garden.

“Initiatives can fall flat,” said Sherman, 35. “Everything feels good on day one, but if you don’t have the right people and right plan to support it, it falls flat. That’s why I found Julie, who can do this with a lot of integrity.”

Frans, who moved here with her family from San Diego four years ago, also serves as vice president of Slow Food Miami. “Slow Food does amazing work teaching teachers how to garden with their classes. What jugofresh is doing is not competing with Slow Food, but taking the garden idea and expanding on it with further support and resources.”

Sherman and Frans designed Lil Gardens, Big Future to be as much about programming as it is about plants. “That’s what differentiates this initiative,” said Frans, 36. “A lot of schools in Miami need help. They don’t have the parent availability; they don’t have the fundraising capability unless jugofresh makes it happen and physically supports the programming. Teachers will get the joy and not the burden.”

To make that happen, Sherman has committed more than funds to the project; he’s committed active, hands-in-the-dirt participation from his employees. “We have such amazing millennial staff who can provide mentorship and role modeling,” he said. “I expect our staff to play a big part.”

They’re asking for commitment from the schools, too. “We’re looking for a school to be passionate about adopting us,” Sherman said. “We need to know the gatekeepers — the superintendent, the principals and the parents — are on board. That’s what plays into success.”

Lil Gardens, Big Future couldn’t have anyone more on board than Dr. Alice Quarles, principal at North Beach Elementary. The school has maintained a garden well before she arrived nine years ago, and now with jugofresh’s program, is growing everything from parsley to papaya. “What we’ve done is enhanced it, moved it and increased it,” Quarles said. “Now we have an edible forest and an expanded area right by our cafeteria where we can compost scraps and our new cafeteria trays.”

Each grade is responsible for maintaining its own garden bed. “We have tasting days, harvesting days when the cafeteria manager uses some of what we grow. It’s a whole cycle of growing and caring and eating,” said Quarles, who maintains a garden at home. “It gives children the opportunity to learn about the whole world.”

It also gives the public the opportunity to learn more about North Beach Elementary and other Miami-Dade public schools. “People recognize the phenomenal things that are going on in our public schools and understand we do more than just FSA [Florida Standard Assessment],” Quarles said. “It’s about building a community.”

The next two schools slated for Lil Gardens, Big Future: South Beach’s South Pointe Elementary and Midtown’s Primary Learning Center.

“Playing in the dirt is fun,” Sherman said. But more than that, he wants Lil’ Gardens, Big Future to provide “an opportunity to help kids connect with their food and contribute to making South Florida a great place live.”

Getting Involved

Lil’ Gardens, Big Future, community@jugofresh.com, 786-472-2552.

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