The Detroit Youth Food Brigade
By Raina L. Baker
Special to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Honey buns, Skittles, McDonald’s and Hot Cheetos were some of the favorite snacks for participants in the Detroit Youth Food Brigade. But that was before they were introduced to the healthy food program. The Detroit Youth Food Brigade is a program that collaborates with high school students and local food-based businesses, including neighborhood markets to introduce healthier food choices to teens. The goal of the program is not only to advocate for healthy food options in the city and to help build the economy, but also to teach young students the necessary interpersonal and professional skills needed to work in the food industry. The students are exposed to new healthy foods, are assisted in resume building, developing communication skills and nutrition.
“The program encouraged me to eat healthier,” said Kenneth Redden, an 18-year-old student at Highland Park High School, who has worked with the program for two years.
Nina Wilson, a 17-year-old student at Cowan Sunset High School, says the program is a gift. “It’s teaching me to work in my field and with vendors. I’m learning how to market and sale and this is my first opportunity working with the food industry.” Students intern one day a week at a food business and often help assist in the preparation of the food.
The youth brigade partners with Sweet Potato Sensations, Harmonie Garden, Peaches and Greens and a number of other local food businesses including Colors Restaurant. General Manager and Chairmen of the Detroit Food Policy Company Phil Jones said it’s great having the youth work in food businesses. A team of the Detroit Youth Food Brigade vends at Colors Restaurant, located at 311 E. Grand River in Downtown, on Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. “This is an opportunity for us to share our story and resources with them. We’re about community here. This is just a natural extension of what we do,” says Johnson. Colors is a non-profit organization run by the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Michigan that uses ingredients from the local community and trains employees in entrepreneurship.
Like Colors, the Detroit Youth Food Brigade teaches the students necessary skills for the industry before sending them out to the field. Students have classes and a boot camp at the program’s start to help them to prepare. They have business speakers, learn mixtures of fruits and vegetables, how to safely handle and prepare food, good customer service, financial literacy and how to lead healthy lives and maintain a good work ethic. Alyssa English, a 17-year-old senior at University High School, says the program taught her how to perform under pressure. She’s since become interested in working in the food industry. The students complete 60 hours of training and also participate in community service such as working in community gardens.
The students found out about the program through their schools. Noam Kimelman, a program director, introduced students at Cody High School to the program.
DeAsia Wilson, a 15-year-old student at Cody, says schools don’t promote enough healthy eating, which is why programs like the Detroit Youth Food Brigade are so important. “At one point, we were selling wraps, salads and other healthy options at school but products stopped being provided so we had to stop selling,” she told the Michigan Citizen. She says programs like the DYFB are necessary because business is necessary and so is eating healthy.
Twenty students are recruited for the program after completing an application and interview process and are paid a $580 stipend. The revenue from the foods they sell at the local food markets and businesses go toward their stipends.
Supervisors who have worked with the program say it’s most rewarding to see the students come into leadership roles. The students take active roles and assume responsibility by ordering the product of the week, determining food prices and how the product should be sold. Students meet once a week at the Detroit Ponyride Building to hear various speakers in the business and also take trips to locations including Gleaners Food Bank, where they work with food preparation and Eastern Market, who provided a $12,000 kick-starter to help the brigade with operating costs.
Regardless of harsh circumstances, including hot weather, the students say the program is rewarding so they work hard to keep the enthusiasm. After all its better than staying at home watching television, which is what many said they would be doing if it weren’t for DYFB.
Even better is the opportunity the program has allowed for them to meet new people, says Alexus Ridley, an 18-year-old student at Cody.
Carlos Cortez, a 2012 graduate of Cesar Chavez Academy who will attend higher Eastern Michigan University this fall, plans to study textiles and merchandising. Cortez says he’s considering food entrepreneurship but would like to continue working with the food brigade regardless.
While enjoying eating and selling hummus, falafel wraps, jams, sweet potato sensations, fresh fruit and more, rather than gas station snacks with no nutritional value, “we’re providing people with more options,” says DeAsia Wilson. These youth are helping to promote food justice in the community and preparing to be future leaders in entrepreneurship and advocacy with the help of mentors and people who care about Detroit’s diet.
For more information about the Detroit Youth Food Brigade, visit www.detroityouthfoodbrigade.com
For information on the Colors restaurant, visit www.colors-detroit.com/ or e-mail Phil Jones at email@example.com
Photo Courtesy of Raina L. Baker