This Thursday is our American Thanksgiving holiday, when families and friends get together to share a special meal. Roast turkey is the traditional centerpiece, along with cranberry sauce, and for dessert: pumpkin pie. In San Francisco, one corner café is using pies - pumpkin, apple, walnut and more - to teach inner city youth about the value of fresh, locally grown food and to inspire them to help create a healthier, more sustainable food system. Véronique LaCapra has this report.

At the Mission Pie café in San Francisco, it's all about the pies. And what goes into them: from the wheat crust to the sweet fruit filling, all the ingredients come fresh from local farms.

Mission Pie co-owner Karen Heisler believes strongly in reducing the distance that food is traveling, in part to decrease our dependence on increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

"But also because there's a cultural value to developing a more intimate relationship with where our food is coming from," she says.

Heisler says that Mission Pie is dedicated to strengthening the relationship between urban and rural communities. She is particularly interested in reaching out to San Francisco's young people.

"Our goal is to inspire young people to discover for themselves what really matters to them about a healthy food system," says Heisler, "and ideally, to discover a pathway into choosing a role through which they can help improve the health of that system."

With that goal in mind, Heisler co-founded an educational farm, called Pie Ranch, where inner city students from a local high school get first-hand experience with rural life. The teenagers are mostly Latinos and African-Americans. They come from poor economic backgrounds, and they all have learning disabilities. At school, they take classes related to agriculture and the environment, and for one day each month, they visit the farm to plant, harvest and cook.

"The experience of eating together and eating freshly prepared, simple, but wholesome foods is really central to the experience at Pie Ranch," Heisler says.

Ranch opens up 'another life' for youth

For kids growing up in the inner city, like Andy, a 19-year-old Mexican-American, Pie Ranch can feel like a whole other world.

"There's like, no TV. You just farm, you know, and then cook, and then eat, and then talk - gather, you know?" he says. "It's so fun over there. You just, you just don't want to leave there."

Andy calls Pie Ranch "another life," an experience he wishes everyone could share.

Andy grew up in San Francisco hearing his mother tell many stories about her family farm back in Mexico.

"I think for Andy, one of the things that has been meaningful about Pie Ranch is really being able to develop a relationship with a farm of his own," says Heisler.

The experience of hands-on, down-in-the-dirt learning can also make a big impression - and teach students a lot about sustainable agriculture along the way.

Andy describes how before planting, the students use the residue of the previous crop as fertilizer.

"We mix it with the soil, get chicken poop, put it over, mix it up, and then do the seeds," he says.

Andy says that by working at Pie Ranch, he learned that the old crop has nutrients that can help the next crop grow.

"It's in the books, but it's better to see it happen than read it. 'Cuz, you know, that's the way I learn things: I have to see it to believe it," he says. 

Cooking up ways to help teens grow

Andy now works part-time at Mission Pie, along with Mark, an 18-year-old African-American, who says Pie Ranch wasn't what he expected.

"I thought it was going to be boring and stuff, but I got there [and] it was like fun," he says.

Mark says he learned to eat healthy food at the farm - and how to cook it.

"First time we went down there, we made apple pie, and to this day, my apple pie is the best there we ever made," he says.

Heisler says that when Mark first came to work at Mission Pie, he was one of the quietest young men she had ever met.

"We had some concerns about whether he would come out of his shell enough to be effective in the role of customer service," she says.

But now, Heisler is happy to say that Mark is the most competent young person on the café's staff.

"That's a great story of success for us at Mission Pie," she says.

Pie shop promotes local produce

Even with these individual successes, Heisler remains deeply concerned about the broader problems facing agriculture, including the industrialization of food production systems worldwide.

She looks forward to a day when more food will be grown locally, closer to consumers, rather than being shipped around the country or the world. But that will mean attracting many new farmers to work on those smaller, local farms.

"It will be a great day when one of our Pie Ranch students turns to us and says, 'I'd like to choose this life. I would like to be a farmer. I grew up in a city, but I want to be a farmer.'"

While that hasn't happened yet, the program has taught students useful job skills, and Mark and Andy are considering careers in the food system - maybe baking pies.