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Detroit Food Academy

Detroit Food Academy teaches leadership skills by supporting Detroit high schools in building their own community-focused food business. Using experiential learning, Detroit kids are driven to critically think, consciously consume, and actively promote community change as they wear the shoes of food entrepreneurs who have the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit at heart. 
Michigan Nightlight: What really differentiates this program?
Detroit Food Academy Executive Director of Operations Jen Rusciano: Our exciting medium: inspiring ideas and communicating skills by engaging our students in building their own community-focused food business. With every topic and idea we explore, we invite our students to add their own interests and opinions, practicing the process of bringing their values and perspectives into projects. 
We also engage and directly support educators who are already deeply rooted in Detroit high schools, building on their relationships with students and their educational skill to create a well-facilitated and exciting experience. We believe that educators know their students the best and can most quickly create an environment of trust and support within which to explore new material, try new foods, and see the world in a new way.
Our DFA staff also has a range of experiences, including in food systems, education, and social entrepreneurship, which we extend to our students by directly connecting them to real world experience: partnering them with local food business owners as their mentors, setting up field trips to urban farms, local restaurants, and Michigan food conferences that bring food businesses, farmers, and the beloved community closer together. 
Our local food business mentors are paired up with a student and meet regularly to swap stories, share advice, and learn from one anotherís experiences.

What are the keys to success for your program?
Keeping our students and educators excited about our program is both a fun and vital part of our work, and we do this in large part by focusing our energy and attention towards goals that our groups decide are important. This means we are always sharing ideas and getting feedback at all levels, from the DFA staff to teachers to students and back again, to make sure that we are helping them learn and accomplish the things they are interested in, and also that we are doing that in the most effective and exciting way possible. We are always listening for new ideas and to find ways to connect our classrooms to the community, two techniques that help us to always be responsive and relevant.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
We know that education takes a lifetime, and we know from both our teachers’ insights and our staff’s education background that instability in schools affects learning for students as well as educators’ ability to facilitate. Our hope is that we can be a consistent, quality presence in Detroit high schools. To do this, the two main goals we are focusing on are building strong, responsive relationships with educators and also seeking diverse funding sources. Our evaluation process is constant, and we are always looking to engage our educators and students in helping us develop in an effective direction. Also, we are looking at potentially expanding our interactions to school administrators so we can better advocate with our educators. For funding, we are branching out to include crowd-funding campaigns and fundraising events, both of which will give us more control over the timing and amount of funds raised. 
How does your program take a collective, collaborative approach to creating systemic change for children? 
Our program places students and educators at the center of our work. This both means engaging students and educators actively to help us shape our goals and process, and also expanding our networks of support and bringing them to bear on
We know that by providing our students with the safe space to explore complex ideas and practice building solutions, we are preparing leaders who have the confidence, skills, and support to build equity at every step.
the classroom. We begin by engaging students as active co-creators of their learning, inviting them to make meaning in the education process in order to make it effective. Our educators peer-mentor one another, using collective insights to help them shape processes that are appropriate for each of their educational communities. 
Community involvement is a cornerstone of our work, connecting the classroom to the larger world through relationships with local food business owners and community leaders. We have found that a key point in translating classroom conversation to community connections is growing student relationships with local food entrepreneurs. Our local food business mentors are paired up with a student and meet regularly to swap stories, share advice, and learn from one another’s experiences. We also regularly invite food business owners and local leaders to facilitate workshops with our students in the classroom. 
During the year, we have a number of partners throughout the Detroit community who host us for field trips, and in the summer months, our students work within neighborhood farmers’ markets to launch their businesses! This collective approach is both effective in amplifying diverse voices to shape the experience, but also in inviting our students to engage in supportive networks that will play many roles in helping them meet current and future goals.
How does your program address issues of equity (economic, educational, racial, etc.)?
We apply a justice lens to every aspect of our program and teach through a triple bottom line model. Triple bottom line refers to a holistic perspective on business, and living more generally, that considers the well-being of people, planet, and profit as a framework to evaluating the justice of our actions. We use food business as a vehicle to create a safe space to ask the tough questions. Contained within our justice framework are core values of equity, accessibility, and anti-racism. These values come with an effort to empathize with individuals, communities, and lands -- aka, all of us -- that live within our imperfect confluence of food and business systems. The values are most importantly the effective vehicle of triple bottom line food business that supports our students’ power to identify their values and leverage their business to make these values tangible in the world around them. 
For example, we open space in the classroom for students to share about their personal experience with structural racism and the many issues it creates and impacts, including the lack of livable employment, perhaps mentioning the experience of a family member or friend. We then invite students to describe the situation they wish to see for this person, exploring how they could shape their own food business to get there, perhaps by investing in skilled training for employees so they are able to hold increasingly skilled positions. We know that by providing our students with the safe space to explore complex ideas and practice building solutions, we are preparing leaders who have the confidence, skills, and support to build equity at every step. 
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Person Profile

  • Jen Rusciano
    Engaging students in sustainable food business


  • 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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