This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia School District has introduced a new breakfast item created by District students to be offered in schools throughout the city. The item, called Rebel Crumbles, is a hearty and nutritious breakfast cake packed with fruit and whole grains to give students a healthier food option to make it through the morning.
The cake was made by Rebel Ventures, a student-run business that has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. The students come from Bartram, Parkway West and Sayre High Schools, and Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus. They are mentored by Jarrett Stein, co-founder and executive director of Rebel Ventures, and University of Pennsylvania students.
“This whole process has taught us about running our own business, making decisions, and taking control of what we eat,” said A’Nya Pollard, a Bartram senior.
“I get excited that we were able to make something that’s healthy, and students like it.”
The story of Rebel Ventures began in 2012 at the now-defunct Pepper Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. Stein, a health partnerships coordinator for the Netter Center, taught a nutrition class at Pepper as a part of a District nutrition and wellness education program called Eat.Right.Now. that works to affect children’s diet and exercise choices.
Stein gave his students a project asking them how they’d make the school healthier. Recognizing the problem of food insecurity – defined as the “state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food” – the students decided to make a granola bar that would be sold in the school store.
The bar gained popularity among students and proved to be an educational experience, Stein said. When they learned that Pepper was closing in 2013, the students, backed by Stein, decided to start a company to continue selling the bars and pushing their effort to address food insecurity. They named the company Rebel Ventures to celebrate the spirit of rebellion against social injustice and disenfranchisement, particularly as it relates to nutrition.
“Our form of resistance is taking control of the foods that kids have access to,” said Stein. “It is sharing power with kids in creating their own food system.”
Stein coordinated a partnership between Rebel Ventures and the University of Pennsylvania, providing mentorship and additional resources. Stein insists, however, that Rebel Ventures is a student-powered organization and that he and the other adults are simply there to “amplify the student voice and their power.”
The group continued to make the granola bars, labeled as Rebel bars, and sold them to some local retailers and various schools, including Henry C. Lea, Benjamin B. Comegys, and Samuel B. Huey Elementary Schools.
To push the project further, Stein began talking with the District’s Division of Food Services and proposed adding a product from the group to school menus. In August 2015, the District took him up on the offer to create a breakfast item. The only requirement was that the product had to meet the USDA’s nutrition requirement for school food: a half-cup of fruit and two servings of grains, 32 grams, half of which must be whole grains.
Initially, the Rebel crew – headquartered at the Center for Culinary Enterprises – tried to make another granola bar, Stein said, but meeting the requirement was too difficult. Instead, they explored different baked goods, ultimately settling on a breakfast cake.
Tre’Cia Gibson, a junior at Parkway West, said the process was a good learning experiment, but very stressful.
“It was lot of tasting, a lot of retrying, and a lot of experimenting,” said Gibson, an avid baker. “It was a good process because we were able to experiment with different things to see if it met the requirements.”
The students created more than 50 versions of the crumble and finally settled on a recipe that included apples, cranberries, and whole grains. After successful taste tests with elementary students and District administrators, the Rebel crew knew they had a hit.
“A lot of kids liked it, so we stuck with the product, and the School District liked it as well because it met the criteria,” said Zaire White, a sophomore at Parkway West.
Once the crumble was approved, the Rebel crew partnered with Michel’s Bakery, a 17,000-square foot bakery in the Northeast, to begin production and distribution.
Their first order from the District was 86,400 Rebel Crumbles.
“We only have three hours in the kitchen three days a week. It was a big help for them to distribute cakes throughout the District for us,” White said.
Rebel Crumbles are now available at 235 District schools and will be served in schools that have full-service kitchens. According to the District, it is the first time a student-produced item has been made available to District schools.
“Right now we’re going to focus on the cakes and try to grow,” White said. “And better ourselves and get better at this business.”