PEOPLE FOOD AGRICULTURE

Over the past five weeks, students in the Mentoring Positives and PEOPLE programs developed a frozen pizza prototype to be marketed as Off the Block pizza. From left are Malia Green, 12, Evelyn Walker, 13, Demetria Prewitt, 12 and Bryan Xiong, 17, at the Salvation Army Community Center in Madison.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Frozen pizza is the ultimate easy dinner. But, as a group of teens found out in Babcock Hall this summer, it’s no easy thing to build a “healthy” pizza from scratch.

First, there’s the dough, which has vagaries of flour and rising time and shaping. A cook must make tomato sauce choices: these teens said yes to onions and basil, and no to oregano and sugar. There are cheese-to-sauce-to-topping ratios to work out.

They looked at challenges of scale, and investigated how freezing affects the final product. Some day, thanks to the students’ work, Off the Block pizza could be pitched to hungry shoppers in local grocery stores.

“I didn’t know selling pizza was this hard,” said Bryan Xiong, 17, from Milwaukee’s Riverside University High School. “It was an amazing experience.

“But yeah. It was really hard.”

Xiong is a participant in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s PEOPLE program, designed as a college pipeline for first-generation college students, low-income kids and students of color.

A Food and Agriculture track launched in 2012 has included a hands-on internship since last summer. The idea is to explore food science and entrepreneurship through making a real food product, which in 2015 was a carrot pumpkin health bar with whey in it for protein.

“It was not sweet,” said Greg Lawless at UW Extension, who helps run the Food and Ag portion of the PEOPLE program. “We made a savory carrot pumpkin bar. We explored food trends and saw that on the West Coast there’s a huge explosion of savory bars of all types of flavors.

“It was pretty successful in terms of finishing a product design, a recipe and a marketing plan. The success we had with that last year gave us the confidence to go forward with a more difficult product.” 

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PEOPLE FOOD AGRICULTURE

Off the Block pizzas come with either a thin white crust or a thicker wheat crust. They're all vegetarian pizzas: spinach and tomato, green olive and mushroom, red onion and red pepper and cheese-only. Mentoring Positives sells its Off the Block salsa at Metcalfe's, Ken's Meat Market and Piggly Wiggly, among other places. 

Last Tuesday afternoon at the Salvation Army Community Center, PEOPLE and Mentoring Positives students debuted their first batch of all-vegetarian Off the Block pizzas to a roomful of community partners and potential investors.

Mentoring Positives is a Darbo-Worthington neighborhood nonprofit that works with students of color at the Salvation Army. They developed Off the Block salsa as a fundraising item a few years ago, and their existing network means Wisconsinites could see an Off the Block pizza in their local Metcalfe’s or Piggly Wiggly as soon as next year.

“We had probably 20 different individuals contribute to this in terms of expertise and ideas,” Lawless said. Mentoring Positives founder Will Green “is interested in continuing the product development phase. His kids are interested.

“There might even be individuals who want to financially support it going forward.”

This year’s PEOPLE and Mentoring Positives teens weren’t working alone. They got help from Steve Fraboni of Fraboni’s Italian Specialties and Delicatessen, Salvatore Di Scala from the Italian restaurant Naples 15 and Madison College culinary instructor Paul Short, who provided a recipe for the sauce.

Three UW-Madison food science undergrads helped develop both a white flour and wheat flour dough.

 “The first time it was horrible,” said Viola Sughroue, 17, a rising senior at South Division High School in Milwaukee. Early crusts had no flavor, and the toppings got soupy during baking. Pies were lopsided.

“It tasted nasty at first,” Xiong agreed.

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PEOPLE FOOD AGRICULTURE

Miranda Johnson-Phillips, 17, has been involved with the PEOPLE program since she was in middle school. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, and returns each summer for an internship. She's interested in biological systems engineering at the UW-Madison. 

That’s why 17-year-old Miranda Johnson-Phillips, a PEOPLE student charged with developing an Off the Block pizza business plan, was so thrilled on Tuesday to taste how well the pizzas turned out — even if some of the toppings wouldn’t be her first choice.

“Personally, this pizza in front of me I would never eat in my entire life,” Johnson-Phillips said, pointing to a green olive and mushroom pizza. “But that pizza right there, that spinach and tomato, I would eat that all day.”

Off the Block pizzas use a mix of 80 percent mozzarella and 20 percent provolone, with a little feta on the cheese-only pie.

The recipe still needs tweaking. It doesn’t have nutritional information yet, and pizzas the batch just before Tuesday’s leaked sauce through the crust onto the bottom of the ovens in Babcock Hall. 

The thinner white crust was “slightly more popular than the wheat,” Lawless said. “To develop an Italian crust in four weeks that got favorable rating was a home run.”

Teens made the first batch of 26 pizzas at FEED Kitchens. Once there’s a final recipe, Mentoring Positives can look for ingredient sources and, possibly, a co-packer to make the pizzas.

“We need to figure out what we need to advance this program,” Green said. “We’re going to need the support of other individuals to make this work.”

For the teens, Green added, it’s the adults’ responsibility to “give them the stage as much as possible. They have gifts and talents, we just often times don’t have enough time in this world to give them the opportunity to be leaders, to be entrepreneurs.” 

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PEOPLE FOOD AGRICULTURE

Diners sample and provide feedback on new Off the Block pizzas during the PEOPLE Food and Agriculture Showcase at the Salvation Army Community Center in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood. 

As for PEOPLE, Lawless said this could be the last year for the Food and Agriculture track, which needs to raise $82,000 to continue for staff, equipment and payment for the student interns. Food and ag has been funded for five years by a USDA grant.

“This has the potential to create a diverse pipeline of kids for the food and agriculture industry,” Lawless said. The program is “both for the benefit of the kids and the companies.

“Diversity spurs innovation, and food and ag needs innovation, needs to address itself to changing demographics in the country.”

While several of PEOPLE students expressed more interest in veterinary medicine than food science, the internship did have some real effects for Johnson-Phillips, who’s interested in biological systems engineering. A participant in PEOPLE since she went to Toki Middle School, the rising senior goes to school in San Antonio, Texas and returns to Wisconsin just for this program.

“I’ve never felt more prepared going into my college life,” Johnson-Phillips told the room at the conclusion of Tuesday’s event. “I’m stressed out, you guys. I feel more secure. My second favorite (thing) was being a boss, a little bit. I appreciate them letting me be in a leadership role.

“Getting to eat the pizza — that was pretty great too.”

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.