Renewal Highlight: Jen Rusciano & DFA

This is part of a weekly series building toward our 2014 membership renewal time for our founding businesses, telling the stories of our members and how they've grown with FoodLab.

When Detroit Food Academy (DFA) was little more than a thought and before FoodLab was an official organization, Jen Rusciano, Executive Director of DFA, and Jess Daniel, Chief Enabler at FoodLab, were putting their heads together to host what Jen called “eat and greets.” They brought farmers, growers, food industry workers and businesses to the same table to encourage connections that were ripe for collaboration. That instinct to facilitate connection where it seemed to be missing persisted. Since her days as a FoodCorps member working with the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP), Jen continues to concoct fresh connections at DFA, engaging “young Detroiters in skill building and community pride through the hands-on experience of food business.”

Jen is co-founder of Detroit Food Academy alongside fellow FoodLab member Noam Kimelman (founder of Fresh Corner Cafe). Green Garage, a co-working office space in Midtown, houses the offices of Fresh Corner Cafe, DFA, and FoodLab. In fact, DFA is sometimes referred to as “Baby FoodLab" (understanding, of course, that DFA develops young high school leaders, not infant-sized culinary prodigies). The DFA/FoodLab connection is only a natural one. Jen praises the support she has received from the FoodLab community, especially the incredible network of food entrepreneurs and business owners who have stepped up as mentors to her high school students. 

“As a FoodLab member, we’ve been able to connect to people who are maybe only one or two degrees of separation away from us, but who we may not have known to talk to otherwise,” Jen said. When DFA expanded its programming to include Small Batch, they needed a commercially-licensed kitchen where the students could create, prepare, and package their product. Jen looked to her friends at FoodLab for help joining Detroit Kitchen Connect and, now, students participating in Small Batch work side-by-side with FoodLab entrepreneurs in the kitchen of Ss. Peter & Paul Cathedral of Southwest.

Jen doesn’t sit when she works; her desk is a standing set-up. Always keeping an eye on the bigger picture, Jen keeps good company with Jess Daniel, Ashley Atkinson (of Keep Growing Detroit), and Angela Newsom (part of People’s Kitchen Detroit) in a group they call the “Golden Calves.” 

“It’s our own sort of practitioner-to-practitioner exchange, women in non-profits supporting each other kind of thing,” Jen said of the group. “Early on, it was mostly us turning to Ashely to learn things like how to put together a chart of accounts, important things we didn’t know! She had been doing that kind of work for years at that point.” Now, building on insights from her early eat-and-greets, Jen is excited to describe her vision for future overlap between DFA, FoodLab, and Keep Growing Detroit. New and old farmers, new and old food professionals, and new and young leaders developing through food: to Jen, all touch points in a complete and more tightly-woven food system in Detroit.  ‚Äč


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