Cookies, Pastries and Other Treats Are Helping to Bring Back the Motor City

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Youth unemployment is sky-high in Detroit—and Small Batch is working to create new opportunities in food for young residents.

At Detroit’s Eastern Market, it’s hard for kids to bypass the Small Batch table. Covered with ingredients—Michigan honey, organic oats, fair trade dark chocolate—they can make their own versions of Mitten Bites, a no-bake cookie made of all-organic ingredients (save for that local honey) that was developed in the youth food incubator program. Adults forgo the DIY route and buy boxes of the popular dark chocolate peanut butter bites.

The dense Mitten Bites are the brainchild of Hassan Amaleki, one of the kids in Detroit Food Academy’s first after-school program, launched at Cody High School in 2011. Now he’s working toward making his after-school project into a legitimate business enterprise.

Similar food-business incubator programs have proven successful in other parts of the country. Now in its 10th year, San Francisco’s La Cocina has created more than 1,800 market opportunities for low-income women who want to open food businesses and has subsidized $3.4 million in rental costs for those operations. Other programs, such as New York City’s Food-X, follow a more conventional venture-capitalist model, but while it may not be launching the careers of recent high-school students of immigrant women, it is trying to tackle big issues, such as how to feed a growing population in the face of climate change.

In a city that, in recent decades, has been defined by economic decline, Detroit’s youths don’t have the promise of a high-paying job in a car factory after finishing school. Indeed, Michigan’s youth unemployment rate is at an all-time high—nearly 60 percent—and as the local public radio station, WDET, put it earlier this year, “Detroit is at the center of the crisis.”

During the summer, the Detroit Food Academy employs 25 to 30 kids who work with business mentors, conduct market research, and refine their vision for launching a food business with a triple bottom line—one that values people and the environment as much as profit.

Mitten Bites. (Photo: Detroit Food Academy/Facebook)

“The entire purpose of Detroit Food Academy is leadership and entrepreneurship, but we use cooking as our medium,” explained Small Batch director Jacob Schoenknecht.

So it wasn’t just life skills Amaleki learned in the program—Mitten Bites clearly had legs, and with the program’s help, it has been launched into a fledgling business. The cookies debuted in Detroit-area Whole Foods in August, and now, having graduated from high school last spring, Amaleki is one of Schoenknecht’s colleagues at Small Batch Detroit.

“Small Batch is a total product of what Detroit Food Academy is all about,” said Schoenknecht. Small Batch’s mission is to hire current students or recent alumni, like Amaleki, giving them their first in-depth job experience with a minimum starting salary of $12.95 an hour. “We noticed students were creating so many awesome food businesses during the summer, we really saw it as an opportunity to become not just an after-school program but a full pipeline for our kids,” Schoenknecht added.

In order to help provide new job opportunities, Detroit Food Academy wants to be financially self-sufficient. Grants, after all, can go away, so part of the goal for Small Batch is not only to support students and recent grads but to provide funding for the school programs. Small Batch is a social enterprise in which business principles are used to support and create high-impact social change. It’s the gas for the educational engine.

“A lot of times, programs get pulled and the students aren’t given explanations,” Schoenknecht said. “They’d ask, ‘Are you gonna be around? Can I come back?’ We really saw a need to be self-sufficient enough so kids would always have us.”

The revenue from Mitten Bites has so far been sufficient to cover production expenses, as well as the salaries of three students working 15 to 30 hours a week. But the company has its sights on more.

“Money coming in from the Mitten Bites is fantastic, but to me, it’s all about the student hours,” said Schoenknecht. “My goal within two to three years is to have 20 students working at least 20 hours a week and for us to have a structured system of advanced positions, so there’s managerial roles, production managers, trainers—just a lot of options for career growth for the kids.”

Small Batch has visions of opening its own commercial kitchen, to be used as a teaching facility and to produce the next round of the student-inspired products, such as a Pop-Tart-inspired pastry made with local ingredients. It’s all happening within the supportive Detroit food scene, where business mentors like Slow Jams and partner nonprofits FoodLab Detroit and Keep Going Detroit work together to empower fledgling food businesses and urban farmers, providing jobs, creating income, and guaranteeing food security in a city where unemployment is higher than the national average and the poverty rate is 39 percent.

“The entire community around food here is really awesome,” Schoenknecht said. “They’re good people to be around.”

This story was originally published on Take Part.


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