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Men Alive produce stand provides jobs skills, fresh food for community

A small green and red stand went up at the corner of Oakland and Indiana avenues last week. Beneath its shade, the participants of Church Community Services’ Men Alive program will seek to fill two needs in Elkhart County: the desire for fresh produce and the practice of hands-on job skills.

The stand, built by the eight men currently in the program, is filled with locally grown produce such as salad greens, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, asparagus, hanging baskets and plants, purchased wholesale from farmers in the area.

This venture may brand new, but Men Alive began in January 2014 through Church Community Services. The life and work skills program runs 20 weeks, giving men who are unemployed or just out of prison a fresh start. There are eight participants between the ages of 21 and 60, who will finish the program in August. Sean Murphy, director of Men Alive, calls the month of June a “soft opening” for the stand — an opportunity to train, learn and grow.

“A big part of the program is to empower and increase job skills,” Murphy said. “We’re using social enterprise and the stand as a tool to empower skills and also service the community.”

Men Alive designed and built the stand, bins and counter, and will work in all aspects of running a produce stand, including inventory control, working a register and coordinating wholesale purchases and sales.

The program currently gets produce from Wakarusa Produce Auction and has a partnership with Rise Up Farms in Elkhart. The goal, said Murphy, is to sell only produce from Elkhart County, and the plan is to expand to a wide variety of produce items as the project develops.

Each week, one or two participants will go to the produce auction and area farms to bid on what to buy for the stand.

“As weeks go on, we hope to develop relationships with farmers in other areas,” Murphy said. “It’s basic wholesale and resale: understanding what products are needed, what is freshest, what will sell, what customers are willing to pay, what the auctioneer says. These are universal principles and we’re all learning at the same time.”

The larger plan is to start a garden for the program in the next year, so the men can sell food they grow themselves. Men Alive currently helps with Church Community Services’ Seed to Feed garden, which provides food to local pantries.

“There’s enjoyment out of building something with a team of people and getting fresh produce that’s organically grown for people in this area,” said Tracy Heath, one of the program’s participants.

The stand is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 5 p.m. at the corner of Oakland and Indiana Avenues. There will be a grand opening the week of July 8, with hours extending to Fridays, noon to 4 p.m., and potentially Saturdays as the venture develops.

“People driving by are starting to notice,” Murphy said. “We believe in local foods and sustainability. If we can keep locally grown food right here in Elkhart County, that’s important.”

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