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The Next Urban Chef

The Next Urban Chef is a visionary new program that educates Detroit youth about food systems and sustainability, while simultaneously teaching hands-on cooking skills. The five-month program culminates in a culinary competition where students work in tandem with noted local chefs to prepare a meal with all locally sourced ingredients.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable? 
The Next Urban Chef Co-Founder and Coordinator of Educational Programming Alison Heeres: I feel that the innovation in this program lies in tying the social issues we’re talking about to an actual skill set. Learning about our local food system, where food comes from and how it gets to our plates gets kids jazzed about working with the chefs and learning cooking skills.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
Learning about our local food system, where food comes from and how it gets to our plates gets kids jazzed about working with the chefs and learning cooking skills.

The program was brand new last year, so it was exciting to see just how much the kids are interested in knowing the truth and reality of issues surrounding sustainability and food justice. They’re compassionate, curious, and eager to engage.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
It’s been really challenging to keep a steady participation in the program. We have two sessions a month for five months, May through September, and we ask the kids to commit to missing no more than two sessions total. This year our participation was 25 at the start of the program and ended at 15. Communication and coordination with students and their families can be difficult when people are struggling with resources.
What really differentiates this program?
I don’t know of any other programs tying culinary arts to food systems education. In addition to learning things like knife skills and other basic cooking techniques, we talk about topics like seasonality, food miles, and sustainability. We’re also engaging the students’ critical thinking skills rather than just spoon-feeding information. For example, we’re not just talking about healthy vs. unhealthy foods, but trying to get them to think through questions like whether food from a local farm might be a better choice than organic food from across the country.
What are the keys to success for your program?
One big key to success is parental or family support: having someone at home who understands the value of the program.
I don’t know of any other programs tying culinary arts to food systems education.
Another is community support. We’re running this program with extremely limited resources, so we rely entirely on volunteers who donate their time and expertise.
How do you innovate programming? Where do the ideas come from?
I’m constantly seeking ways to connect the classroom topics to kids’ lives -- to make it “real.” Visiting different venues like Detroit’s Eastern Market, urban farms, and food banks, and working with chefs who have local businesses they can see and touch, provides a concrete connection to the activities and learning they do in the classroom. I also focus on a learning approach in which the students are never being lectured; rather, through activities and discussions, they rely on their own critical thinking skills and logical problem solving to put things together.
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  • The Next Urban Chef
    It is the mission of The Next Urban Chef to engage youth from the city of Detroit in the good food movement. Too often, the faces of those working for food justice do not reflect those who live in the communities that are suffering most from the ...


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