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The Kitchen as Classroom: How Food Helps Students Learn Leadership

Food
Detroit Food Academy facilitator Alexis Chingman-Tijerina, right, with students. Chingman-Tijerina has been with the academy since August. Zenobia Jeffries Warfield

By Zenobia Jeffries Warfield

With the Detroit Food Academy, there's no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen. The students in this program designed to introduce them to the food business wouldn't have it any other way.


It's what they enjoy most.

The kitchen is their classroom. And on this day it has the smell and sounds of home. It's like family, the six student participants from Cody High School say.

The aroma of the Indian food they are cooking is inviting: Bali beef, cucumber raita and mint and spinach chutney: their favorite tunes play in the background.

It's the first time the students have prepared this meal. In fact, there are many firsts when preparing cultural dishes, and it's one of the things the students find most exciting about DFA.

Working with local educators, chefs, and business owners, the Detroit Food Academy, a nonprofit, is helping to build leadership, business, and entrepreneurial skills in students and Detroit area young people, ages 10 to 24.

It uses food, says Jen Rusciano, co-founder and executive director of DFA, "because of how tangible it is, how many different issues, ideas, and histories [it] touches."

For 15-year-old Jayla Daniels, the program is a chance not just to exercise and expand her interpersonal and leadership skills but indulge her passion around food.

She's head chef for the day and is thrilled at how her Indian dish is turning out. She chose it, she says, because she had never had Indian food. "I love cooking," Daniels says, beaming.

From left to right, Detroit Food Academy facilitator Alexis Chingman-Tijerina and student Jayla Daniels.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield

This is her second semester in the program and the ninth grader's second time being head chef. She cooks all the time at home, she says, and is considering culinary school after high school—or psychiatry.

An ideal trajectory through the program might take young people like her through phases—from school-based leadership, to summer leadership program, to advanced leadership program.

Students from the seven participating local schools where the program operates go through foundational exercises such as knife skills (making fruit salads), and nutritional elements (making smoothies), before moving on to meal-planning and cooking, led by trained DFA facilitators—two at each school.

On the business end, they are taught budgeting—from planning a food item they want to sell, pricing the ingredients and setting a cost with the goal of making a profit.

In their junior and senior years, students are encouraged to apply for the Small Batch Fellowship, which allows them to receive professional development, mentorship and work placement within the organization's food business community.

From the leadership and fellowship programs, some of the students then advance to DFA's business arm, where they receive a stipend to work for one of two product lines. Mitten Bites produces all-natural snack bars made with local honey and fruits, and Slow Jams makes 100 percent Michigan-produced gourmet jams. There's also Small Batch Detroit, with products designed and crafted by DFA students.

Detroit Food Academy students preparing ingredients.

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield


Each of these, Rusciano says, steers youth toward self-directed experiences.

Because home economics classes have phased out of most U.S. high schools, a lot of young people who learn food and cooking hands-on have not always had the same opportunities to apply math skills in the kitchen, she says.

"So one of the things we evaluate our young people on is math using kitchen and food business examples," Rusciano says. "So, if you're looking at a recipe that serves four and you need to serve 20, how do calculate your profit margin?"

The participating schools don't pay for the program. It's financed through fundraising and grant funds from foundations.

And not every program participant follows the same trajectory.

Desmond Burkett, 26, a production manager with Mitten Bites and Slow Jams, went through most phases of the program as a nontraditional student.

He had dropped out of Cody High at age 16. And while he wasn't attending classes, he was going to the neighborhood library every day, he says. That's where he learned about DFA.

"When I started in the program, it was a job opportunity in the summer and that was the main focus," he says.

Detroit Food Academy Production Manager Desmond Burkett stirring a batch of Slow Jams jam.

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield

"[The librarian] was like 'why are you here, you should be in school,'" he says. "I told her I was disillusioned with the way I was being taught, so I decided not to go."

She introduced him to one DFA's founders. This was before the program was in the schools, Burkett says, and participating youth came from local churches and other programs. His involvement in DFA opened doors to other opportunities.

He's worked at the Eastern Market, one of the largest outdoor farmers markets in the country, and local restaurants and food-based businesses.

And after receiving his ServSafe Manager Certification, which is an accredited program that provides food safety training, he was promoted to production manager for Mitten Bites and Slow Jams.

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield


"The program is amazing," Burkett says. "I love the idea of what they're doing, and I think it needs to be done."

But while he appreciates the work it is doing in Detroit, he's concerned about the number of nonprofits like it in the city that are not run by Detroiters or have Detroiters in leadership positions.

"There's more of a 'here is what you should be doing,' instead of a 'what do you need to succeed?'" Burkett says.

The people leading these organizations have led privileged lives, he says, and are not accustomed to listening to poor people, or Black, and Brown people.

"I think a lot of these organizations think their program is good enough," he says. But, still, some of the youth are being taught to be workers and not leaders, Burkett says. It's a critique he's shared with DFA leadership.

"If the people who hold those [leadership] positions never want to give [them] up, how does the system change?"

He says he feels the leaders of DFA are "trying to incorporate" what they are hearing from him and other young people.

Detroit Food Academy student Jayla Daniels enjoying her dish.

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield

Soon he'll open his own business—though not in food. He has partnered with two colleagues, one of whom is also a DFA manager, to open a co-op thrift store in the city.

Rusciano says what DFA is doing goes beyond teaching kids about healthy food and healthy cooking.

Not only is the program providing practical experience for youth, but it's teaching them "how to think about entrepreneurship, equity and production in the food industry, and getting a wide range of experiences to help them understand food sovereignty."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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