Youth-powered Rebel Ventures is a nonprofit social enterprise in West Philadelphia creating “healthy deliciousness” in the form of healthy, affordable foods for schools. Over the past 18 months, a dedicated crew of West Philly high schoolers and Penn students teamed up with the Division of Food Services at the School District of Philadelphia to develop their newest product, Rebel Crumbles. Combining entrepreneurship, hard work, and many, many taste tests, Rebel Crumbles were introduced by the School District of Philadelphia across all 235 public school cafeterias in January.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with co-founder and executive director Jarrett Stein, as well as high school students Tre’Cia Gibson, A’Nya Pollard, and Fleshae Arbur-Seay, about the importance of youth-driven food solutions and the process of developing the first-ever school food item created by a youth-run business.
Food Tank (FT): Rebel Ventures is a youth-led organization. Why do you think it’s important that youth are active participants in designing and developing sustainable food systems?
Jarrett Stein (JS): By designing and developing a sustainable food system, youth take ownership, learn, and build community. We all want to make decisions for ourselves. As kids, eating is one of the first parts of life where we can have some control; these decisions about food are powerful. Sharing power with youth in creating their own food, drives ownership in the experience and the outcomes. Kids will eat just about anything if they grow it, cook it, or think it’s cool. Designing and developing a better food system is a tremendous problem to solve, making it potent experiential learning. Whether it’s running a food business, growing a garden, or cooking a community meal, every sense and every discipline can be engaged in the process. This is the best kind of education. We can’t build a sustainable food system or create a healthier school by ourselves. It requires collaboration and teamwork. Youth work across individual differences to accomplish goals: they influence one another, and encourage each other to try new food and new perspectives. In the case of Rebel Ventures, engaging youth as entrepreneurs also exposes them to new experiences and insights through partnerships with university students and professionals. Together we create healthy deliciousness and strengthen our community.
A’Nya Pollard (AP): Being high school students, most of the kids look up to us because we’re older than them, if we develop healthy habits and healthy eating, we can act as a role model to younger kids.
Tre’Cia Gibson (TG): As high school students teaching younger students, [we are] someone inspiring them to do better. While they are seeing us progress now, they will transition to where we are.
FT: What drives young people to become involved in Rebel Ventures’ programs and activities?
JS: Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country. From what I can tell, it’s not that easy for a teenager to find a job. You can do a lot with a paycheck—go to the movies, buy a pair of Jordans, help out with the rent, etc. A job is pride, and it is independence. The work itself is also exhilarating. We experiment with recipes in a commercial kitchen, conduct lots of taste tests, analyze data, meet with business executives and public officials, edit videos, and mentor kids in elementary schools. It’s fun to be a Rebel.
TG: What motivated me to be in Rebel Ventures was that I wanted to do something for myself. I was dedicated and motivated to improve my public speaking. I want to study psychology, [where I’ll be] talking to people. [Rebel Ventures] teaches me how to run my own business, and as high school students coming and helping children, it pushes my motivation.
Fleshae Arbur-Seay (FA-S): I want to run my own daycare, and [Rebel Ventures] is helping me with kids and cooking and learning how to run my own business.
FT: Rebel Crumbles has just been released in all District school cafeterias across Philadelphia. Could you tell us about some of the major milestones in the process of getting Rebel Crumbles from an emerging vision to a state-wide product launch?
JS: The Crumbles story began when we reached out to the Division of Food Services at the School District of Philadelphia and asked them what it would take to get our main product at the time, the Rebel Bar (a whole-grain, cranberry, dark chocolate granola bar) onto the menu in school cafeterias. Food Services knew about our work and were excited about the idea of a youth-created product. They gave us the school breakfast guidelines and recommended we have a product that would meet the requirements for two grain servings and one fruit serving (per USDA guidelines). With this charge, [we] tested recipe after recipe in our kitchen and searched for a partner to help us bring the product to scale. Soon after, we entered into a pitch competition for education-focused social enterprises in Philadelphia and our crew, competing against teams of seasoned adults, pitched the idea for a youth-created school breakfast product and won. With our US$5000 and confidence from the victory, we began working extra hours baking batch after batch of recipes until we got it right. During this process, we realized that two grain servings and one fruit serving fit (and tasted) much better in a breakfast crumb cake than in a granola bar. We also developed a partnership with the amazing team at Michel’s Bakery, the last large-scale baking manufacturer in Philadelphia, to create the product at the scale needed to feed every student in Philadelphia. Working in collaboration with MESH Design and Development, we created the name and packaging for Rebel Crumbles. All along the way, we had the backing and support of the School District of Philadelphia. This entire process was powered and inspired by the high school students in the Rebel crew.
TG: In August 2015, we started coming up with flavors, experimenting with different flavors trying to meet the District’s standards of whole grains and fruit [servings]. We were working on our Saturdays testing different flavors, trying to come up with something healthy but also tastes good. When the Bakery joined us, they were a big help. We were able to go to the bakery and watch the crumbles being made.
AP: I was there from the beginning until the release. The moment that stood out was when the school district finally gave us a recipe that we were going to go through with. We went through so many recipes, flavors, and flour and fruit combinations. And we got to taste test all of them; we were full of cake!
LA-S: A moment that stood out for me was when a girl said she enjoyed coming to school because she enjoyed eating the crumbles.
FT: Your work involves partnerships between students, staff, and parents—to what extent is Rebel Ventures also cultivating community?
JS: Rebel Ventures, as a project, was incubated and is supported by Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Cultivating community is in our DNA. A typical day in the Rebel R&D kitchen involves high school students, Penn students, staff, and expert mentors from our community all working together to problem-solve, innovate, run the business, and build meaningful relationships. In creating and selling products, we explore the food system (from farmers to factory workers and cashiers to cafeteria managers), and every partner along the way becomes part of our community. We work directly in elementary and high schools with students, teachers, staff, and parents—growing food, cooking food, and learning entrepreneurial skills. Cultivating this educational community is primary. Our mission is to create healthy deliciousness with kids (and adult allies) in schools. This isn’t the work of an individual, but a community of eaters and educators who work together to make sure have healthy experiences: learning, playing, and eating. Our job is to amplify youth voice, power, and participation in creating this healthier school and community.
TG: We worked with the teachers and people in the community, and working with them has given me better public speaking and better communication skills.
FT: What are some other major projects Rebel Ventures is focusing on?
TG: We’ve been working on coming up with another flavor for the Crumbles that would meet the School District’s criteria: to balance out the sugar, include two fruits and whole grains. Right now we’re testing apple-banana.
JS: Beyond Crumbles, we have also created a plate, the SnackGarden, that is designed to encourage kids to taste new fruits and vegetables, learn about portion sizes, and be happy eaters. We are working deeply with kids, teachers, and parents to develop activities and curricula that make trying new foods and creating new flavor combinations fun (and educational). Next, we are developing a new flavor of Crumbles and also designing a new product to bring Rebel’s unique brand of healthy deliciousness to lunch. Finally, we are always learning from our mistakes and improving our youth development model to maximize our crew’s growth (and influence) and connect them with every opportunity to achieve their dreams.