A group of high school students stands at the stainless steel countertop in their culinary classroom, recounting the ingredients they combined to produce the dish in front of them. “Then we blended it, we tried it, and it was good!” one of them gushes.
Another student stands proudly, if a bit nervously, behind a bowl of creamy concoction sprinkled with garnish. She laughs a little as she extends the bowl toward her classmate. He dips a chip. She prompts a favorable response, suggesting “yummm” as he chews. He nods and smiles.
Outside of the classroom, in a local commercial kitchen, other students whisk eggs, dump measuring cups of flour, and shave mounds of zucchini slivers. Under the supervision and mentorship of a Detroit food business owner, these kids work together to invent a recipe for applesauce zucchini muffins.
All of these students are members of the Detroit Food Academy (DFA), a nonprofit experiential leadership program co-founded by Noam Kimelman (B.S. ’09, M.P.H. ’12) that motivates young entrepreneurs by offering practical experience in Detroit’s local food industry. After school during the fall and spring semesters, students bone up on basic kitchen skills, budgeting, business plans, and social entrepreneurship with DFA. Students take field trips throughout the Detroit food community, participate in workshops led by local food professionals, and apprentice with Detroit chefs. Participating community partners include local businesses that make popcorn, jam, potato chips, pie, sausage, and sushi.
All the while, the students devise and perfect unique recipes that they launch as food products in their high school’s “Market Day” at the end of the year. Especially passionate students apply to continue in DFA’s summer leadership program, which involves marketing and selling their food products in Detroit farmers’ markets and grocery stores. At the end of the summer, students get to pitch their products for a chance at funding and internship opportunities.
With its social entrepreneurship bent, the Detroit Food Academy teaches the idea of a "triple bottom line," which considers people, planet, and profit as critical elements of a successful business. Experiences like selling a home-cooked product—such as their sweet granola treats called Mitten Bites (right)—give high school students a real taste of what's involved in creating their own business.
Mitten Bites—no-bake granola snacks for sale at several southeast Michigan locations, including Whole Foods and Eastern Market—came out of the DFA student kitchen. Designed to be tasty and healthy, Mitten Bites contain just seven local organic ingredients and substitute honey for processed sweeteners. They’re available through DFA’s subsidiary company—an umbrella brand called Small Batch Detroit. Kimelman’s business and marketing acumen has helped ensure that the student products benefit the whole enterprise: Small Batch Detroit profits get reinvested into the DFA educational programming budget.
Kimelman’s new business card bears the title, “Chief Solutionary.” But just a few years ago, he would’ve introduced himself proudly as “Deliveryman.” He started out by driving a delivery truck for a business he co-founded—Fresh Corner Café—which makes fresh food accessible at corner stores throughout Detroit.
Noam Kimelman (left) co-founded Fresh Corner Café in 2011 with Val Waller (LSA ’10); they’re joined in this photo by employee Dale Brundidge (right). When the business was new, Kimelman delivered the fresh foods he packed into his 1995 Buick to more than 35 neighborhood corner stores. “It was an amazing way to see the city,” he says. “I think I got into every nook and cranny of Detroit.”
Photo by Michelle Goik
“It’s certainly rewarding,” he says, “but it was tough and grueling, waking up every morning at six or seven, and you’re out whether it’s freezing outside or really hot outside, and you’re working in a truck that maybe has air conditioning that works—sometimes—and maybe not.” Despite that daily grind, Fresh Corner Café had sold 4,000 meals and donated 4,000 meals within a year. In just three years, Fresh Corner Café was thriving, and Kimelman had expanded his vision for food access in Detroit by helping to establish the Detroit Food Academy in 2012.
“A lot of the reason the Detroit Food Academy exists is to create opportunities for young people to get excited about something different from traditional education and to have a voice in the development of Detroit,” he says. “I’ve seen the importance of entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities for people who don’t traditionally have access to those opportunities.”
These days, DFA teaches young students how to transform their interests into skills and opportunities. But Kimelman remembers getting schooled by Detroiters back when he was making hectic runs in his delivery truck. “In a lot of ways, I thought of Detroit as this lower-income city that needed help, which is a very problematic interaction with the city,” he says. “And I parachuted in and had all these big ideas. I was white, I was educated, I was resourced. I thought it meant that I had authority to do things, or that people should trust me. I was very clearly wrong, very quickly.”
Kimelman’s peers and mentors in Detroit took him aside and disabused him—firmly but compassionately—of the naïve assumptions that he brought to the city. He says that their disarming honesty, and perhaps his tendency to think like an anthropologist, which he honed as an undergraduate, helped him shift his attitude and his strategy. “I think the study of anthropology is studying cultures without our Western biases, which maybe eased my adjustment in the city,” he considers. “Coming into Detroit with some of that background, I realized that my perceptions of what’s ‘objectively’ good differs from many people who grew up in Detroit, and what they value, and what they’re looking for.”
Kimelman now divides his time among the Detroit Food Academy, Fresh Corner Café, and a national nonprofit called the Fair Food Network. He’s living up to his “Chief Solutionary” title by helping wherever he’s needed—with intractable issues, big-picture strategy, and long-term guidance. As for DFA, it continues to expand, with new generations of Detroiters sharing their own ideas, recipes, and stories over meals. Bit by bit, they’re building oases in the food desert: opportunities in Detroit that are more equitable, just, and delicious.