Life Lessons from the Brainfood Kitchen

Brainfood | July 2016


Brainfood is one of the most nourishing things happening in the DC food scene—growing local produce, developing culinary-curious youth and investing in homegrown entrepreneurs.

It just doesn't get much better. With "Kitchen All Stars" and "Community MVPs", Brainfood is cultivating a creative, food-conscious crop of youth. In a country where a third of people are obese, and in DC where a third of kids grow up in poverty (and many of those live in food deserts), after-school opportunities like Brainfood are literal lifelines for our next generation. And teenagers can be especially difficult to engage, for myriad reasons, which makes what happens in Brainfood kitchens only that much more impressive and vital.

Through this mini-series I wanted to capture the richness of Brainfood's kitchen chaos and the clamor of learning, in all its mess.

Angela Wu

There are plenty of distractions and detracting influences competing for the attention of these teens, but for four hours a week, they focus on what's nourishing, like mac n' cheese with creamy cauliflower, flatbread pizza and banana muffins. Of course, those are the byproducts of good, clean fun in a safe, positive environment with committed role models and mentors.

Perhaps the best way to become familiar with Brainfood's work is to attend one of their annual events. From pig roasts to burger battles and cook-offs, there are lots of opportunities to engage and learn how to support kids in the kitchen. 

Enriching the community and engaging teens in the kitchen, Brainfood puts a creative twist on youth development in DC.

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The Brainfood Way

For fifteen years, Brainfood has been making commercial kitchens into safe spaces where DC teens develop character, confidence and cooking skills.

Two afternoons each week, high schoolers come from all over the District to cook together. Outside of the traditional classroom and sports field, these young adults learn to manage their time, overcome challenges, to read and prepare increasingly complex and diverse recipes, all while earning community service hours. Though the types of foods participants prepare in the program have changed somewhat over the years and though the curriculum has started to emphasize healthy cooking and sustainability in the program’s operation, Brainfood’s mission still centers on youth development and empowerment.

Through this mini-series I wanted to capture the richness of Brainfood's kitchen chaos and the clamor of learning, in all its mess.

Angela Wu

Cooking is a tool we use to build practical life skills.

Carina Gervacio, Program Director, Brainfood

Brainfood draws high school students from all eight Wards of the District. Through its programs, youth gain experience working with their peers, contributing to community organizations, practicing employability assets and developing confidence in their cooking and leadership skills. The program also empowers youth to make informed decisions about health and nutrition.

Students learn about the science of food as they study yeast and growing a garden; they hone practical skills like reading and math by following recipes; they develop team work by collaborating with peers on culinary projects. But as Executive Director Paul Dahm points out, the program is "more about instilling in them an interest and a love of learning. They realize, 'Oh, I am capable of learning. I am capable of mastering these new skills,' which then frees them up and makes them a little more courageous to try some other things later."

In fact, a recent survey of Brainfood's All-Star participants found that: 

  • 91 percent of participants believe they can do most things if they try; 
  • another 86 percent reported that when they have a problem, they can work it out; 
  • 93 percent reported they try to understand what other people go through; 
  • 95 percent reported they have goals and plans for the future, plan to graduate from high school and plan to go to college or some other school after high school. 

These findings demonstrate the problem-solving skills, confidence, empathy and drive that accompany the practical skills and creative endeavors of culinary creation. 

What's it like to volunteer?

As a long-time Brainfood supporter and volunteer, I can speak to this. During my first volunteer shift with Brainfood the focus was on whole grains. (What are the chances? I worry that I'm going to develop a reputation as someone obsessed with roughage. I swear I'm not. Though it is important to include in a healthy diet...) As I stood by as an adult mentor, students chopped and grilled and roasted quite the feast, in this case millet burgers, quinoa salad, a hearty veggie chili, and some forbidden rice with coconut milk. Yum. You must guess by now that the way to my heart is directly through my tummy.

After only a couple of months, the students and adults I work with feel like an integral part of my life, and I find myself especially looking forward to Tuesdays.

Since that fateful and delicious first experience working with the crew at Brainfood's Columbia Heights location, I've been enamored with the program's careful cultivation of meaningful relationships between teens and adults as students develop valuable team building, time management, and culinary skills. 

I've learned a lot so far from the students as well as Amy, our fearless leader. Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken—I had learned to adeptly roast and carve one up awhile back at CulinAerie—last week Amy went and taught us all about different methodologies for preparing healthy and tasty alternatives to fried chicken. (Or at least healthier: one recipe had an awful lot of mayonnaise, but it was still baked rather than fried and used cereal as the crunchy coating. It was soooo good. I found myself, as the kids did, going back for seconds. And thirds. I mean, come on, who can resist homemade ranch and honey mustard dipping sauces?) And there was the spicy but irresistible tortilla soup from the week before: I hovered nearby asking students about the kinds of foods they liked to make at home as they expertly diced jalapenos and onions, then slurped up a second helping after everyone had their fill during the closing meal. I had to go home and make some myself!

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Growing opportunities

The summer of 2013 marked the program’s first foray into a seasonal Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation.  Participants in the Box Project worked with Brainfood staff to plan, create and market a six-week series of CSA-style boxes that included a variety of prepared foods, organically grown local produce and support resources like recipes and healthy eating tips.

Now in its fourth season, Box Project builds on the model of community supported agriculture, where subscribers sign up at the beginning of a growing season to receive seasonal fruits, vegetables or food products. Each box includes prepared foods that are youth-approved and homemade by students gaining experience in food production, growing and harvesting produce and marketing. The program’s CSA boxes build on Brainfood’s belief that making healthy changes starts with education and support, thus each week’s box includes recipes, cooking tips and suggestions on how to utilize new produce. 

In the Kitchen

When you step into the Brainfood kitchen, you very quickly realize that you've walked into a cooking family. In this family, you have all your usual cast of characters: the little brother/clown/jokesters, the big sisters who remind everyone of their appointed task, and the quiet middle children who do all and say nothing. No matter how crazy this little culinary family is, they are nothing if not focused on their tasks. From basic kitchen skills to learning about how to cook to minimize food waste, these students are doing big things for themselves, their families, and for the community they give back to. ~ Whitney Porter

At the end of an afternoon, I noted that stories are shared as we gather around the table, or in this case, a stainless steel countertop. Memories, however, those are made in this kitchen.

Whitney Porter

Giving Back

Students feel comfortable at Brainfood. To them, it has proven itself a safe and positive environment where they can cook and make friends. And of course, there is always delicious food to enjoy together at the end of class. What’s not to love?

However, it is not lost on these smart young people that they are also learning important life skills. Aysa Allen, a senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, recently completed her third year of the MVPs program. She explained that she initially joined the MVPs so she could expand her cooking repertoire and work on her public speaking skills.

More Than Cooking

In 2011, Executive Director Paul Dahm and the Brainfood board began to consider developing a second-year program to offer more opportunities to those graduates of the Kitchen All Stars (as the first-year program had come to be known). A series of intensive Brainfood student focus groups revealed that what students wanted most in an advanced program was not specialized baking skills or culinary training. What they sought was an opportunity to give back. Yes, this came from the teenagers—a group often unfairly dismissed by their elders for their perceived disruptive behavior or entitlement attitudes. These young people wanted to share what they had learned in Brainfood with the community. Specifically, they wanted to teach their friends, family, neighbors, and younger people healthy cooking. The following year, in 2012, the first Community MVPs were born.

I definitely think more about how my food is made these days, and where it comes from. Now I look for fresh fruits and vegetables. I never used to do that.

MVPs participant Myla Clark became interested in food deserts during her senior year at School Without Walls. In addition to writing a 15-page paper on the topic for school, Myla developed and taught two workshops to Brainfood first-year students, including the hands-on teaching of two recipes using non-perishable food items commonly found in food desert corner stores. One of these recipes – the black bean quesadillas – soon became a favorite one of Myla’s. "I actually prefer them now to chicken quesadillas, and it's come in handy when I am making food for vegetarians," she smiles proudly.

Investing in Communities

Brainfood Community MVPs are DC teens building leadership and voice for youth in the food movement, empowering the community to be educated eaters and teaching the District to cook healthy food, one delicious workshop at a time. The eight-month program teaches returning Brainfood students how to develop and facilitate hands-on workshops on healthy cooking. During the fall, participants design workshops and refine their teaching techniques. In the spring, participants identify community groups in need of food education resources and schedule times to deliver their workshops at on and off-site locations. All MVPs workshops are hands-on, youth-led and tailored to the size and interest of the group they teach. Schools and nonprofits can sign up to host an MVPs workshop on site or travel to the Mount Vernon kitchen location for a hands-on cooking lesson. In some cases, Brainfood MVP workshops represent teens’ first paid work: after logging sufficient training hours, participants are paid for their work as community teachers.

Healthy cooking has become a hallmark of Brainfood’s MVPs program. Members of the program go out into the community, teaching cooking with a focus on health, food culture and, most recently, food waste. “I have too much of a fresh fruit or vegetable and I don’t know how to use it,” one of the teen presenters proposed at the group’s final workshop at the Capital Area Food Bank’s (CAFB) annual summit in early May. “Is it cauliflower? I often find myself with more cauliflower than I feel like I can use. Does that ever happen to anyone else?” Shawnee then suggested a vegan cauliflower macaroni and cheese. (Note: I’ve tried this, and it is DELICIOUS.) This was the first of the tasty and accessible dishes that the 2015-2016 class of MVPs made during the CAFB workshop.

The focus of both the workshop and the overall summit was on reducing food waste. Together, the MVP presenters identified three common causes of food waste and offered a tasty and inexpensive recipe suggestion for each, with an eye to diverting edible food from ending up in the waste stream. “Don’t know what to do with the other part of that broccoli? Don’t just throw it out, try some broccoli stem pesto!” They did, together with their workshop attendees. “Don’t know what to do with those bananas that are a bit overripe? Here’s a tasty banana bread recipe. You can easily freeze the leftovers, and defrost slices, or muffins, as needed.” Delicious food created; food waste averted. Another successful workshop, brought to you by local teens.

Some program graduates take what they've learned even further, becoming Brainfood's Homegrown entrepreneurs. 


Francisco Rivera and Ryan Williams represent the next stage of growth for this youth development program. They are the first employees of the nascent Brainfood Homegrown project.

Both are graduates of the Kitchen All Stars program. Fran had been involved with Brainfood on and off for about ten years, whereas Ryan first came to the program about three years ago, quickly recruited by Fran while working as an employee of DC’s Summer Youth Employment Program at Brainfood’s summer Box Project program. Both love food and cooking and pursued work in culinary school and local restaurants after graduation, but eventually found their way back to Brainfood.

Through this mini-series I wanted to capture the richness of Brainfood's kitchen chaos and the clamor of learning, in all its mess.

Angela Wu

Developing a process

Brainfood Executive Director Paul Dahm recalls the program’s start-up phase during the summer of 2015, when an exciting partnership opportunity with Union Market presented itself. Originally, there was a CSA component designed to meet the neighborhood need for fresh produce. The idea was to market prepared foods a la Box Project alongside the CSA at a small stand within the Union foodie marketplace. There was a lot of excitement that first summer, but the CSA didn't take off as hoped so the Brainfood Homegrown team decided to try something new.

Sales started slow...and then I don’t know how exactly, but kale chips happened.

They discussed better packaging, where to sell their products, where they could work with their local partners. “Let’s focus on snacks,” Molly suggested, “and reach out to 3 Stars and DC Brau” – both breweries have been longtime supporters of Brainfood. "Sales started slow," recounts Francisco, “and then I don’t know how, exactly, but kale chips happened.” After much experimentation, a series of other snack foods followed in later months, ranging from chips to popcorn to baked goods. The latter are Ryan’s specialty, particularly his spent grain chocolate chip cookies. And then there are Fran’s always popular fresh teas and juices. “My pride and joy are my beverages, especially the beet ginger cider. They’re awesome,” Fran smiles, “and they almost always sell out.”

The project has a strong social enterprise feel. “It’s like being in a food startup: doing something new, building something from scratch,” explains Molly Madigan Pisula, who came on board as Brainfood Homegrown's manager in January 2016 and now uses her Stanford MBA to creatively manage and strategize new market solutions for Homegrown products. “There is a lot of experimentation and testing as we figure out the path for success for this new business. Work experience gives Fran and Ryan a chance to explore, while many first job experiences don’t give you the leeway to do that. But it also needs to become something consistent and scalable. How do we grow this? If we can make something take off, not only can we hire more people to support Homegrown, but maybe we can grow the program enough to create a revenue stream to support Brainfood programs.”

New ideas are welcomed and embraced, but the next step is: Does this makes sense? Can we make any money on it? Is this a viable business?

Molly Pisula, Brainfood Homegrown Manager

The way they developed the inaugural line of foods has so far been largely exploratory, moving toward perfecting a small set of key products while testing out new products. The business is growing just as their business skills do. Homegrown’s newer items will take actual cost into account – ingredients, labor, packaging, labels – and determine whether it’s worth it. New ideas are still welcome and embraced, but, Molly explains, the next step is “Does this make sense? Can we make any money on it? Is this a viable business?”

Professional development

You might never guess from his soft spoken demeanor that Fran has been named one of DC’s food scene movers and shakers or that his products were prominently featured in an article in the Washington Post Food section. The project lead is most happy in the kitchen, perfecting his craft and exploring new flavors and textures, but admits that he’d like to learn other skills.

This work experience gives them a chance to explore; Many first job experiences don’t offer the leeway to do that.

Fran was the primary recruiter of his first employee, Ryan, with whom he works closely three days each week. He is starting to cost things out with Molly to assess viability of new and existing Homegrown products and is hoping to grow the team. Along the way, Fran shares that he’s been gaining a sense of timing and continues to work toward cultivating a calmer, more manageable working environment. “We have a sense of what takes longer to make and package, so we can prepare for that.” Ryan concurs. This is not to say the kitchen is not busy: there is always some degree of new recipe experimentation, preparing and packaging the week’s products or a delivery in process.

The Brainfood Homegrown team is growing. The program now employs a few others on the tight-knit team. Madelyn Bullock is a Brainfood graduate who works the counter at Brainfood’s weekend Union Market stand. Her high energy and friendly demeanor make her an ideal salesperson for Homegrown’s program and its wares. JaNeya Lee is working at Brainfood through the DC Career Connections program and splits her hours between Homegrown and regular Brainfood programming. The team is training both Ryan and JaNeya to work at the Union Market stand.

Home Grown Bleed

Unlike traditional Brainfood programs, Homegrown focuses on creating something and selling it. There is potential to become a food incubator, but with more support and less risk than traditional entrepreneurial undertakings. The folks involved in the early days admit that they’re not sure what the transition is going to be as Homegrown grows. They consider things like, “Where is your heart at? What is your comfort zone? As the program grows, where will each person fit?” They’re all learning together and supporting each other while pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

So, really, though the focus may be a different sort of product, one you can buy and sell, it’s built on positive human development and strong partnerships…a Brainfood program through and through.

Get Involved

Editor's Note

Brainfood is simply a fun and fantastic organization creatively meeting the needs for youth development and empowerment through the medium of cooking. Brainfood teaches practical and critical life skills, such as math, public speaking, teamwork, critical thinking, experimentation and character development, all while providing fun and creative opportunities in the kitchen. These skills then build students' confidence, give them positive outlets to develop their interests outside a typical classroom and set them on a pathway to healthy living and self-sufficiency. It's truly amazing what a Chicken Strawberry Salad can do!

The opportunities to get involved with Brainfood are seemingly endless, but here a few great ways to get started, as identified by our wonderful contributing Lead Writer Ibti Vincent:

  • Volunteer. Become a weekly classroom assistant. Weekly volunteers provide ongoing support and mentorship in the Brainfood kitchen.
  • Purchase a Box Project summer CSA share.
  • Purchase Brainfood Homegrown snacks. These can be found at Union Market (Saturdays and Sundays 11-5), DC Brau, or 3 Stars Brewing locations. Additionally, Homegrown snacks are available for purchase for meetings and events. Contact Molly Pisula at [email protected] for more information.
  • Donate. Brainfood is always looking for generous donation of funds or kitchen equipment.
  • Spread the word! #brainfoodhomegrown / @brainfoodDC

Get involved and support Brainfood and the rising generation of DC youth!

Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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