Detroit Food Academy: Promoting Youth Leadership & Culinary Arts

By: Toni Cunningham | September 15, 2014
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Developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a difficult task these days, when there are fast food joints on nearly every corner and we’re constantly on the go. It just seems easier to pull through a drive-thru and pick up a bag of food than to actually take the time to plan out and prepare a meal.

A positive relationship with food is a difficult one to have, but it’s one to easily cultivate at an early age. The Detroit Food Academy is doing exactly that for high school students in the city of Detroit. The nonprofit organization is a leadership program dedicated to transforming the lives of young Detroiters through food and entrepreneurism.

In three years of programming, Detroit Food Academy has taught 250 students from Detroit area high schools and employed 120. The after-school program consists of three semesters: spring, summer and fall. The “pop-up” spring session allows students to design their own recipe and build a triple bottom line food business from start to finish. At the end of the semester, students debut their business at their high school’s Market Day.

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

The recently wrapped summer session, or Small Batch Entrepreneurship Camp, includes a selected group of students from the Market Day finale who spend the summer launching, operating and refining their businesses at farmers markets and grocery stores in Detroit—all while earning a wage.


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“This summer, we completed a hugely successful round of our (camp) with 17 young Detroiters launching their Ola Granola, Mitten Bites and Pop-It Popcorn businesses at four farmers markets throughout the city,” Jen Rusciano, co-founder and executive director of Detroit Food Academy, said.

The summer session also included a program where interested students could dip their toes into the culinary field by working alongside a professional chef, spending one day a week with their food business mentor. The camp concluded with “Pitch Day,” where DFA’s young leaders pitched their businesses to the DFA Mentorship Board and the aspiring chefs took part in a cooking showdown.

“While the competitive aspects of the business pitches and the cooking competition added excitement to the summer projects, our students agree that the best parts were working alongside their peers from around the city to see their personal, impactful projects succeed,” Rusciano said.

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

The Small Batch products students create are currently sold at Eastern Market on Tuesdays and can be ordered for delivery via mail through DFA’s online store.

Rusciano said that this past year has been one of incredible growth, so much so that the demand from schools and students has surpassed the organization’s capacity. The DFA team is preparing to launch the 2014-2015 school year, beginning with the fall (or Mealshare) semester in the coming weeks.

“Mealshare is the first of two capstone projects throughout the year. Students gain experience in the food system, food justice, basic knife skills, nutrition fundamentals, culinary arts and event planning in their efforts to organize and facilitate a community meal for their family and friends,” Rusciano said.

She estimates that over 100 students from 10 different Detroit high schools will take part in this fall’s Mealshare project. DFA participants meet once a week for three hours at a time, with the goal of learning to have the skills, support and confidence to better the city of Detroit as they each succeed personally, professionally and academically.

“By developing food-based solutions in their communities, students learn to identify problems, implement solutions and grow as holistic leaders who are healthy, connected and powerful to affect change within and beyond the local food system,” Rusciano said.

In order to help its participants succeed, the Detroit Food Academy launched a Patronicity crowdfunding campaign in addition to pursuing grants and corporate sponsorship.

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

“At DFA, we know education takes a lifetime, and we plan to be here for the long term… Individual contributions are an essential piece of diversifying our revenue streams and maintaining resiliency, which will get us closer to realizing our vision,” Rusciano said.

That vision goes beyond the classroom, as DFA programs prepare its young participants for further education and career experiences, while allowing students to form connections in the community through mentorship and networking.

“DFA cooks with a blend of vocational training, work experience, education and youth development, uniquely engaging students while they are still in school, emphasizing youth leadership, and surrounding young people with supportive networks to ensure lasting success… Through the diverse experiences students receive, along with their increased connection to supportive and inspirational role models, young leaders are equipped with many of the hard and soft skills demanded for college, career and beyond,” Rusciano said.

After participating in the Detroit Food Academy, most students are offered ongoing employment with their mentors, while several others have played key roles in Detroit-based businesses including Russell Street Deli, Good People Popcorn and Detroit Institute of Bagels.

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

(Photo courtesy of Jen Rusciano)

“More importantly than employment in the food sector, we know our students carry a recognition of the power of food and their own power as leaders into every field they enter,” Rusciano said.

Youth voice and engagement in the learning process is a vital part of success, according to Rusciano, and that’s why DFA is a youth-led program that puts young people in the driver’s seat of such a great undertaking. Students are in charge of it all, from facilitating the food system to scaling out the ingredients to voting on fieldtrips.

“By taking their project from idea to implementation and shaping it through a triple bottom line lens, young leaders grow their skills, connect with their community, and are able to thrive both now and in the future,” Rusciano said. “As students grow as holistic leaders and activists, they become uniquely positioned to transform themselves, their schools and their surroundings.”

For more information of the Detroit Food Academy, visit the organization’s official website or Facebook page. The video below provides a great overview of the organization.