Senior Azaria Bailey loves to cook. It is what drew her to the Detroit Food Academy afterschool program four years ago. The class convened (pre-COVID) at her school for a couple hours after school once a week. This year gave her pause. How do you take a group cooking class at home? Did she want another Zoom call after a day of virtual learning? She decided yes, according to her mom, Adrienne Pollard.

“We’re both really happy how it’s working out,” Adrienne says. “She had class last night. I could hear them laughing, talking, and still having fun, even though they’re on the computer and cooking from their own kitchens. The bonuses for me are Detroit Food Academy dropped off the groceries and Azaria made dinner for the family.”

The team at Detroit Food Academy began reimagining their program when it became evident that the “return to normal” would not happen soon.

“We deliver all of the cooking equipment, ingredients, and cleaning supplies right to students,” says Jen Rusciano, co-founder and executive director of Detroit Food Academy. “We provide everything from cutting boards, blenders, knives, mixing bowls, induction burners, and ingredients so that students can cook right along with us.”

Detroit Food Academy is also linking families to Detroit’s Connected Futures project to provide them with wireless tablets and internet access for in-home use.

The weekly, two-hour sessions are a time for youth in grades 6 through 12 to not only learn cooking skills, but also to engage in deeper conversations about social issues related to our food system and to develop youth leadership skills.

“We use food as this tangible tool to invite students to have ideas, put them out in the world, and learn about the many layers that sit on top of something that’s so familiar to us,” says Jen.

Adrienne sees Azaria not only becoming a great cook, but also flourishing as an individual.

“Azaria’s a little shy, but when she’s on the call, she’s vibrant, open, and ready to go,” Adrienne says. “I feel like it’s making her a leader. She’s been in the program for a while, so she’s always sharing about what’s going on.”

Jen and her team understand that youth and their families might be experiencing some virtual fatigue, but hope they find Detroit Food Academy to be a meaningful experience outside of schoolwork.

“We have to strike a real balance right now,” Jen says. “We have always centered youth voice and youth ownership in the program, and that hasn’t changed. We really invite students to feel like this time is something different, something energizing.”

Adrienne recommends it. “I know it’s hard right now and another virtual something can feel like a lot. A program like this will strengthen your child, though. It can get them out of their shell. They can have a space to be themselves.”

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