They’ve sold more than a million healthy, whole-grain-rich breakfast cakes. They regularly educate other youth about flavors and nutrition. They run a nonprofit business with an annual budget of $200,000.
Now, the members of Philly’s own Rebel Ventures, the student-run food business whose goal is to create nutritious, tasty foods, have their sights set on bigger things: If all goes well, next year they’ll open a convenience store in West Philadelphia, selling nutritious meals and snacks — like beet brownies, healthy stir-frys, and smoothies.
Their motivation comes from a question that has propelled Rebel Ventures’ crew members ever since their enterprise was born in a middle-school classroom in 2010:
“How is four bags of chips a dollar at the corner store, but a smoothie is $4? That doesn’t make sense,” said Rebel Tre’Cia Gibson, 20, a Rebel Ventures co-executive director.
They have been doing something about the conundrum ever since.
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Supported by the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, Rebel Ventures’ signature food item is its Rebel Crumble, a dense, soft breakfast cake (ingredients include oats, apples, and cranberries) sold in local grocery stores and offered on the menu at Philadelphia public schools across the city.
Rebel members, mostly high school students, also visit schools and camps to share with children what they’ve learned about food, flavors, and entrepreneurship. They also have started a grant fund to seed youth-adult collaborations to promote healthier schools, and are piloting a program to designate in-school “Rebel Champs” who will promote breakfast participation and cafeteria beautification.
Students power the crew with an assist from Jarrett Stein, a Netter Center employee. Nine years ago, Stein was a recent Penn grad trying to teach students at Pepper Middle School about nutrition.
It was frustrating, at first. The kids told him there was no healthy food in their neighborhood, that only junk food was cheap and accessible. (Research shows that the obesity rate for Philadelphia children ages 5 to 18 was nearly 21 percent in 2015.)
Stein challenged his students to address that issue and, together, they approached the problem. They brainstormed healthy-food ideas, sampled new flavors, learned to cook and bake, and eventually learned how to run a business so they could sell the nutritious snacks that resulted from all that hard work.
They called themselves the Rebels, because they were rebelling against not just what was unhealthy in their community, but also against people’s unfounded notions that city kids are apathetic, violent, or uneducated.
At first, they sold granola bars in a few schools and markets, with Stein delivering the products on his bike.
In 2015, the Rebels began to talk to the Philadelphia School District about distributing Rebel products widely. As they had been from the beginning, students were involved in every part of the process, from figuring out production and distribution to agreeing on packaging.
School officials gave the Rebels parameters, and a price point. In January 2017, Rebel Crumbles were introduced in the district, where they remain a popular staple on school breakfast menus. The crew continues to refine the Crumbles recipe and hopes to introduce a new flavor soon.
Next up is the opening of a convenience store. If that lofty goal seems out of reach, consider that the Rebels raised over $12,000 in one week to fund the project, as part of the Full City Challenge, a competition designed to help end Philadelphia’s hunger problem. (The Rebels didn’t take the top prize but earned the People’s Choice Award and a $2,500 grant.) They are currently in the midst of planning a funding campaign to raise $120,000 in start-up costs for the Rebel Market, a bricks-and-mortar operation they hope to open next spring.
“Our mission is a youth-powered social enterprise creating healthy deliciousness with kids in our communities. Where there are opportunities to do that in a way that we can have some impact, we try our best to seize them,” said Stein, who is now a Rebel co-executive director. “It’s going amazingly well.”
Simin Deveauxbray, a senior at Prep Charter in South Philadelphia and another co-executive director, works after school and summers toward the group’s goals. She’s a two-year veteran who came to Rebel at a friend’s suggestion. She wasn’t so much motivated by the drive toward healthy food as she was by her desire, at 15, for a job. Somehow, she fell for the mission along the way.
“This changed my mind-set,” said Deveauxbray, now 17. “I learned how certain companies target certain students to get their products. This changed the way I eat: I don’t drink soda or juice, and I try to watch my foods. I look at nutrition facts daily.”
On a recent day, the Rebels’ kitchen space in West Philadelphia hummed with activity as the young people chopped bell peppers, peeled sweet potatoes, and mixed batter for a staff meal.
Tiguida Kaba, a freshman at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, joined the crew because she liked the idea of gaining experience as an entrepreneur in high school, and she hasn’t been disappointed.
“Being able to bring a healthy change to my peers — that’s great,” said Kaba, 15. “I just want to spread healthy deliciousness.”