BRUNSWICK, Maine — Lunch at New Beet Market is fresh and local. Salads are piled high with crisp greens, the fennel is snappy, the coffee roasted a few miles away.
As business crowds dug into sandwiches and devoured just-made beet chips one recent afternoon, the scene in this new Brunswick Landing cafe looked typical. But appearances can deceive.
When the cashier rings you up, your dollars are not tucked into a safe but are funneled back into the community in three ways.
New Beet Market is a low-profit, joint venture between Harpswell Coastal Academy, Seeds of Independence and a 27-year-old food pioneer named Jamie Pacheco. Profits are spread evenly to support children, farming and food in the state.
“I’ve been working in food systems with mission-based organizations and MOFGA [Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association] for years,” said Pacheco, the market’s managing partner, who helped run the Common Ground Country Fair last year. “I worked in restaurants, and I thought I was done with them. This business occurred organically. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the service mission.”
That mission is multipronged. Students from the nearby charter school work as paid interns to acquire real-life experience. Sixth-graders in the Seeds of Independence after-school program called Grit will plant vegetables in their adjacent garden for the market and job shadow in the kitchen.
As an added bonus, workers in the airbase-turned-business park have a healthy place to eat. The idea is simple. “Let’s build a business based on good,” said Nate Wildes, Pacheco’s partner who helped innovate the concept.
Administrators at the charter school and the nonprofit program for teens who need more structure view the partnership as much more than revenue. Open a few short weeks, students working at New Beet Market are getting credit and a paycheck. And after school, kids connect the farm-to-table dots in this living laboratory.
“Food is a lens into global issues, economics and education. From planning to planting, all of these are things we want kids to know,” the academy’s head John D’Anieri said, stopping in for a mug of coffee.
Not only will students like Karli Clark of Topsham learn how a business runs, they will experience and participate in the full cycle of food production.
As a template for place-based education, the program — a hybrid of agriculture, business, education and social outreach — is a strong initiative with high ambitions.
Produce from the school’s farm in Harpswell bolstered with food from the Seeds of Independence garden will be harvested for the market. Many local farms also contribute. It’s locavore heaven.
“We are using the community as a classroom,” Henry Gilbert, the school’s director of collaborative food systems, said. This spring, crops such as spinach and mixed greens will be planted specifically to meet the needs of the market and cafe.
“This is hands-on work that’s giving back to the community,” Gilbert said, likening the collaboration to “a microcosm of the food cycle.”
Students “will be involved in all aspects of food production,” Bradley Goodwin, director of entrepreneurial education at the academy, said.
He held up The SchoolHouse Cafe In Harpswell, which is open to the public but also prepares meals for students at the academy, as inspiration.
Seeds of Independence founder Tom Wright is always looking for ways to help disadvantaged youth assimilate into the community. Food “is key,” he said, “because nutrition is lacking” with many of the children he serves. Working in the market, watching chef Michael Allen’s cooking classes and participating in farm-to-table production could open a window of discovery and a path forward.
“It’s a really rare opportunity,” said Wright, who owns the building last occupied by Wild Oats Bakery Cafe, where the market resides. “If we get all the players together to have a collective impact on the greatest number of kids who need it the most,” the concept could take off across the country.
In the kitchen last week, 16-year-old Clark was all smiles. Learning how a bucket of beets turns into crispy, tasty chips — the house signature — got her thinking healthy. “My last job was McDonald’s,” she said with a grimace. “The food here is much better.” And when she cooks at home she now wonders if chef Allen would approve.
Her schoolmate Christopher Duffek wants to be a chef. “It’s a learning experience, not just a job,” the 16-year-old said.
And that’s the point.
“I want to get kids to come to school,” D’Anieri said. “If this brings them in, that’s a big deal.”
If the market is a success, it could have ripple effects beyond the classroom.
“Nonprofits in Maine have a hard time because we are a high-need state with less access to funding,” Pacheco said.
This creative fusion of interests may harvest a bumper crop of benefits. Demonstrating new ways to make a life here is chief among them.
“Maine has a brain drain with kids leaving,” Pacheco observed. “They don’t come back here to work. We hope we are training kids that want to stay in the Maine economy.”
New Beet Market at 25 Burbank Ave., Brunswick, is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.