THE BACKGROUND ON BRAINFOOD
Like learning about, experimenting with, or just plain old eating, food? Then you’ll love DDG's featured organization this week.
Suzanne Isack founded Brainfood in 1999 with the goal of “using food and cooking to provide high school-aged youth with structured activities during non-school hours”.
Brainfood programs teaches life skills and raise self-expectations through one of the oldest and central human traditions: the act of making your own food. Brainfood’s variety of programs teach young people the importance of healthy eating and nutrition while giving them a role in their community and an outlet for their voice. Most importantly, they get to learn to make AND eat recipes like banana bread muffins, samosas and Shepherd’s pie. The programs also include restaurant visits and working with guest chefs from some of DC’s most popular restaurants.
The programs are designed to meet the “capacities, strengths, and development needs of youth,” according to the oganization’s website, providing them with an environment where they can take risks without fear of failure and can learn new skills. In turn, Brainfood’s students are better equipped to make change in their own communities.
“One of the things that’s really stood out to me over the years I’ve been involved here is how community-oriented our students are without prompting,” said Carina Gervacio, a program director at the organization. “ It was a pleasant surprise how many of them want to take the skills they’ve learned and turn around and give them back to their friends and family. We are just giving them a place to shine.”
In May 2015, Brainfood opened its first retail space in Union Market called Brainfood Homegrown. The space is run by a graduate of the program and sells produce and foods prepared by Brainfood classes.
Brainfood Homegrown currently also offers a CSA pickup program on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We really felt like this opportunity is another way for our graduates to gain experience building their skills, and it also provides our organization with a little more leverage to expand at our own pace outside the typical funding cycle of a non-profit,” said Carina, Come get the homemade kale chips at the Union Market Stand while they last!
Looking further into the future, Brainfood is planning to create more ways for recent grads to get involved in the organization and have an even more empowering experience. They want to give their graduates a launching pad toward the next steps in their lives, building off the nutrition and healthy eating skills they learned in their first years in the program and segueing towards learning about being a responsible employee and gaining sales and retail experience.
Brainfood’s success as an organization promoting youth development has not been lost on the larger DC community. In 2013, the non-profit was the recipient of the Mayor’s Award for Sustainability.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
On May 21, Brainfood’s Class of 2015 Community MVPs had their graduation ceremony at their Mount Vernon Square site. Brainfood’s Community MVP program teaches returning Brainfood students how to lead their own workshops on healthy eating in the community. The program builds off the culinary skills learned in the first year, and places an additional emphasis on community service.
“I learned how to cook on a budget and make nutritious recipes,” said Jordyn, 16. “I learned to project my voice and look at people when they’re talking.”
“It caused my baby girl to come out of her shell,” added Jordyn’s mother, Jerret Wright. “It has given her confidence—I appreciate the culinary skills and the nutritional knowledge. It’s done wonders for her.”
The students spend the fall designing workshops and learning teaching techniques, and in the spring identify community groups in need of food education resources and deliver their workshops to them.
Over the course of the year, the 11 members of the class led 12 community workshops focused on healthy eating that reached over 350 people. Even more impressive? The 11 class members have logged 3,000 hours of community service in the past eight months.
“I see people respond to you. You illuminate things, you make things better. You bring light into my life,” Kim, a volunteer, told the students. “I don’t want you to let anybody say that you can’t do something. We believe in our core that every one of you has value and we appreciate the effort you made. It’s important that you know that.”
Q&A WITH CARINA GERVACIO
BRAINFOOD PROGRAM DIRECTOR
How long have you been working with Brainfood, and what motivated you to choose this particular organization?
“I started with Brainfood in 2005 as a part-time employee and was quickly hired full-time. I had always liked cooking and was looking for something more dynamic than the typical nonprofit 9-5. Initially I thought to myself that I would just keep doing this until it was no longer fun, but that moment never came. Ten years later, I’m still here! I’ve worn many hats during my time here.”
How would you describe your current role as program director at Brainfood? What are your typical responsibilities?
“I don’t teach classes anymore. I would describe my current role as kind of like the connector between all of the different spaces that Brainfood has, from the kitchen to the gardens to the sites. I coordinate everything so that there is continuity between what the program is and what the people’s expectations are. I also serve as sort of an organization librarian or archivist… when graduates come back they have all these memories of how things were previously."
What is an experience that has been especially moving to you?
“Brainfood started as just two programs: Brainfood Kitchen All-Stars and the Brainfood Summer Institute. Kids would be coming back year after year, but there was no real change in curriculum, and we wanted to expand the first year experience. We held a focus group with just the students and asked the students about what they wanted more of from us. The overwhelming response was that they wanted the ability to connect people who couldn’t come to Brainfood program with everything that they were learning. They also wanted a community recognition piece, where they could get more feedback from people in the Greater DC area about what they were doing—carving out a space for their voice and celebrating their accomplishments. Community MVP's developed out of that: an external-facing program that reaches outsides our core demographic and gives the students more responsibility, but also gives them a voice and allows them to give back."