Finding a Way Forward: Detroit Food Academy

Detroit Food Academy (DFA) is a nonprofit organization that develops young leaders through good food and entrepreneurship training. They have typically done this through a mix of robust in-person activities for middle and high school students, including a year-long after school program and a summer leadership program, through which they explore concepts around nutrition, cooking, triple bottom line business leadership, local food systems, and food justice (among others).

DFA’s remarkable success engaging young people has a great deal to do with their place-based, person-to-person approach. While the pandemic has made in-person gatherings impossible, they are working hard to continue shaping the next generation of leaders in Detroit. DFA’s program director Tiffany Brown says that as soon as Michigan started shutting down in March, the team made the decision to pivot to virtual programming. “We had a commitment to continue serving all of the students we had started working with in September,” she says, “so we had to get it done.”

For the remaining two months of the semester, all of their activities moved to Zoom except for one notable thing: they began to deliver groceries to their students’ homes every week so they could continue to develop their culinary skills. Tiffany says that this crash course in how to offer impactful virtual programming informed their approach to their five-week Summer Leadership Program, which they knew they would also have to offer virtually. She’s eager to report the summer program’s successes, including the fact that DFA was able to work with Grow Detroit’s Young Talent to provide $1,000 stipends to 27 individual students who attended virtually.

The summer program included group lessons and smaller breakout sessions in farming, water, grocery stores, and food justice, all of which were executed with the help of community partners. “We can’t let go of the youth during this time,” Tiffany says. “I was so proud that we were able to pay those students’ wages. Our virtual program wasn’t the same as kayaking on the Detroit River or harvesting produce on a local farm, but it still brought us together in community.”

Building on those back-to-back experiences, Detroit Food Academy started this school year strong. Offering their programs online means that they can reach a broader range of students, from all across Metro Detroit and beyond. They’ve figured out how to balance formal instruction with time for students to engage with each other. They bought a van so they can continue to deliver groceries without needing to rely on third party vendors. And for the first time, based on community demand, they’ve opened their programming to students outside the city of Detroit, including in Centerline, Ann Arbor, and Plymouth (though their primary commitment remains to the youth of Detroit).

It’s been a whirlwind of change, but Tiffany is confident that Detroit Food Academy continues to have a transformative impact in their students’ lives. A native west side Detroiter, she says that growing up with “a whole bunch of struggles” gives her a particular insight into the challenges faced by the students she works with today. “Growing up, I didn’t know anything about a local food system versus an industrial food system. I couldn’t have told you anything about the seasonality or origin of different foods. It’s life changing when you get this information to students and they start turning over packages and reading labels. I’m so inspired that the young people we work with care about this at such a young age. Even online, they show up each week ready to learn.”

This is part of a series looking at how Green Garage businesses-in-residence are moving forward during the COVID19 crisis. No one story is intended to paint a complete picture, but taken together, we hope that they will illuminate, in a helpful way, the struggles and successes of some Detroit businesses during these extraordinary times.

Interested in helping Detroit Food Academy while enjoying an unforgettable five course meal? Join Selden Standard for a wine dinner benefit for DFA on Wednesday, November 11. Learn more here.

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