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Jen Rusciano


Detroit Food Academy

4444 Second Ave
Detroit, Michigan 48201
When Jennifer Rusciano was in fourth grade, she explored the origins of her favorite chocolate bar, connecting it to cocoa farms in Ghana. Years later, a college fellowship led her to live and work in small-scale cocoa farming communities around the world, exploring the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. After that, she joined FoodCorps in Michigan for two years, and eventually helped develop Detroit Food Academy, where she currently serves as executive director of operations. 
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Detroit Food Academy Executive Director of Operations Jennifer Rusciano: Being a leader means co-creating a vision with your team and providing the tools and encouragement for everyone to help that vision succeed. Essentially, the job of a leader is to create the environment and opportunities for more leaders, something I believe our program does effectively by inviting students to take ownership of the experience, both through their own food businesses and also by improving the program for future participants.
What is your dream for kids?
Our DFA sees a world where all young Detroiters are inspired and hopeful leaders. We want them to be equipped with rich life experiences, the skills necessary to make informed decisions, to be engaged in their communities, to be embedded in
Entrepreneurship around food, while particularly effective, is one of many mediums to achieve our goal: for young leaders to dream big and shape the reality around them to reflect their values.
networks of support that can help our students reach any goal, and who believe that they can lead fulfilling, successful, and healthy lives. We use the engaging vehicle of creating your own food business to jumpstart this process and support the young leaders who inspire us to take ownership of these goals.  Entrepreneurship around food, while particularly effective, is one of many mediums to achieve our goal: for young leaders to dream big and shape the reality around them to reflect their values.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
One thing our organization and others we work with have noticed is that there seems to be a funding interest in helping projects to launch, but less so in sustaining the work from year to year. Offering support to organizations in piloting effective models and connecting their staff to networks of guidance can help to craft programs that are ready for sustained funding. In our work, we know that education is a lifetime process and so it is important for the Detroit Food Academy to think about funding in the long-term, so we can provide consistent, quality programs to high school students and educators now and in the future. 
How do you know you’re making progress?
While scaling out our programming -- and seeing demand from students and educators for us to scale out more -- can help show us we are heading in the right direction, it is for us a question of quality. We look first and foremost to our students and educators to tell us we are headed in the right direction, creating a constant feedback loop to show us if our training, curriculum, fieldtrips, and workshops are effective tools in meeting and exceeding the personal goals of our students and educators as well as our programmatic goals. We inquire about hard and soft skill growth from our students, both through
We truly know we are making progress when our students feel more engaged, confident, knowledgeable, and better prepared to achieve their personal, academic, and professional goals.
survey and in-person interviews, as well as about positives and challenges our educators see when implementing the program. We look to the quality of students’ experiences as they explore the City of Detroit and our food system, refine their wholesome food product recipe, build their business plan, and eventually launch their product at local farmers’ markets. We truly know we are making progress when our students feel more engaged, confident, knowledgeable, and better prepared to achieve their personal, academic, and professional goals. 
What are you most proud of?
I am so proud of the growth our program has made over the last two and a half years, responding to student demand and expanding from the summer to year round, and offering a consistently engaging and always improving hands-on experience. The impact of the Detroit Food Academy can be told through the experience of one of our first students, Desmond. Desmond joined us in the summer of 2011, having recently dropped out of high school and looking for a summer job. Following an engaging summer where Desmond managed his team’s farmers’ market stand, Desmond explored youth-focused education programs during the year and was invited to take a role as a Boggs Center intern in the summer of 2012. In 2013, Desmond joined us as a director’s assistant, helping to coordinate our many famers’ market stands and acting as a mentor to young program participants. Desmond’s personal goal in joining us was to gain career skills and to take this goal a step further by passing his GED. With his first paycheck from this past summer, Desmond took the GED and was successful!  Not only was our program able to be a short-term asset, offering a skill-building career experience and a summer wage, but we were able to support Desmond in reaching a long-term goal that will benefit him in any future project. 
What originally drew you to your current position and profession? What sort of a path got you where you are today?
Since I was a little kid, I have always loved food. In fourth grade, a project to explore the origins of our favorite food helped me connect my delicious chocolate bar with cocoa farming communities in Ghana. After studying geography and food systems in college, I earned a Thomas J. Watson fellowship and spent a year living and working in small scale cocoa farming communities around the world, hearing farming voices and exploring the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) impact of this global trade. Once I realized that distance contributed to the many injustices impacting farming communities, I became interested in working to bring farmers and consumers closer together in my home state. I joined the inaugural year of FoodCorps, a national food-focused service program building farm to school programs in high needs districts across the country. I served for two years here in Michigan, working in three districts to help food service directors source produce from local farmers, as well as engaging young people in cooking local foods and cultivating school gardens to learn farm to table firsthand. Searching for a way to engage students during the summer months, we developed the Detroit Food Academy summer program and eventually grew it into the year round model we have today. It has been an exciting path involving wearing many hats – a phenomenon which we try to give our students a taste of as they take ownership of their own projects.
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Program Profile


  • Detroit Food Academy
    The Detroit Food Academy uses experiential learning and real-world application to activate young Detroiters as critical thinkers, conscious consumers, life-long learners, values-based leaders, healthy individuals, and community activists. DFA ...


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