During Thursday Sweet Potato Club meetings, teens sit and discuss the complexities of the spud business.

About 15 middle school and high school students are spending their summer working on the Sweet Potato II Project – a skill-development project for lower-income kids, organized by theWest Fresno Family Resource Center. It is a neighborhood-level piece of a statewide project to address mental and physical health issues in historically disadvantaged groups.

Since planting the vegetables in May, the teens started attending six weeks of classes at Fresno State on business and entrepreneurship, learning the ins-and-outs of business ownership, marketing, branding and selling. On most Saturdays, the team checks up on the rows of spuds and cares for the plants. In the early fall, they will harvest.

With the sweet potatoes and skills cultivated over the summer, they will try to make a product, market it and sell it in the community.

Although it started as a simple idea, 15-year-old Jihad Arafi said he was excited to see how he could practice and learn to eventually be a business owner, like his older brother.

“I didn’t realize how big of a project this was gonna be,” said the Edison High School incoming sophomore. “It’s not just a couple kids planting a garden; it’s actually a really big thing. I think we’re gonna learn a lot.”

So far, the students are playing with the ideas of producing sweet potato juice, candy, corn dog batter or churro bites. For Arafi and the others, the project is an opportunity to understand the nuances of running a business through action.

“While this project, at its core, is learning about sweet potatoes and growing them, it is also about communication, conflict resolution, business and leadership skills,” said Yolanda Randles, executive director of the West Fresno Family Resource Center.

Aside from gaining business experience and practicing teamwork, the project addresses mental health and personal development in the African American community via its youths.

The project is “based on the theory that poverty, unemployment, poor educational attainment and lack of economic opportunities in disadvantaged neighborhoods fuel illegal drug activity, violent death and suicide, and disproportionate incarceration of African Americans in correctional facilities,” Ronald Owens, a California Department of Public Health information officer, said in an email.

$1.14 millionGrant from the California Reducing Disparities Project

In Fresno, the Sweet Potato Project is a pilot of a larger effort – Part 2 of the California Reducing Disparities Project – which will officially start in October when a $1.14 million grant is awarded to the Family Resource Center.

“For low-income kids of color in Fresno, it’s hard to get access to this kind of opportunity,” said John Capitman, executive director of Central Valley Health Policy Institute and professor of public health at Fresno State University.

Capitman will evaluate the project on its long-term effects on grades, drive and the psychological development of participants.

The Reducing Disparities Project is meant to address disparities in mental health, especially in under-served communities, and is led by the California Department of Public Health. As part of Phase 1, the department gave funding and worked with organizations that represented African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and the LGBT community to find out what common problems were.

Once certain issues were identified, Phase 2 identified community-level projects that could potentially address these issues personally.

The West Fresno Family Resource Center, alongside 22 other organizations, was chosen in late April to receive funding and be evaluated for a project. The resource center decided on the Sweet Potato Project as a good way to involve youths already visiting the center in a bigger project to build skills and confidence.

The project is expected to run for the next five years, with approximately 30 kids working on the project annually, Randles said. From March to November, the group will plant, grow and sell a sweet potato product, in addition to attending six weeks of classes at Fresno State.

“For a lot of these kids, that’s the first time they’re stepping foot on a college campus,” Randles said. “The goal is to plant that seed, to build that dream that they can one day be a student there or a business owner or a leader.”

The classes will be a mix of team building and hands-on activities to learn how to come up with a product idea, make a commercial and sell it, said director of outreach Laurie Zaninovich of the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Fresno State.

Other organizations also saw the project’s value for young people, said African American Farmers President Will Scott Jr. The group donated about 1.5 acres of land to the project.

The Fresno project is based off of one in St. Louis where a group grows and sells sweet potato cookies as a learning tool for entrepreneurship.

The project provides “the opportunity to change lives in our community, the opportunity to have a positive impact with our youths,” Randles said. “Let’s face it, we need to get these kids believing in their future – and the success of that future.”

Sydney Maki: 559-441-6141, @symmaki