Jarrett Stein kept apologizing to the crowd for his public speaking.
On a cold rainy Tuesday morning, the Rebel Ventures co-executive director told a roomful of food justice advocates and advisors that he first started as a nutrition teacher at George Wharton Pepper Middle School, and he was “terrible” at it. His students told him too, he told the crowd, eliciting laughter.
Stein was part of one of five finalist teams vying for a $5,000 prize to pilot a project designed to tackle the city’s growing problem of hunger. But the Full City Challenge, a joint effort by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and the Philly news website Billy Penn, offers more than just the chance to win money, any startup or lean nonprofit knows, can go fast.
The initiative aims to fold in the resources of the partnership — and the networks that both organizations bring to the table — to help the winning team execute its pilot and fulfill its mission.
The benefits include six months of free co-working space at the Cambridge Innovation Center in the University City Science Center, strategic and technical assistance from the Economy League, and continued coverage from Billy Penn for the winning team. All five teams received one-on-one coaching from the online fundraising platform GoFundMe as well as the chance for matching funds up to $2,500 for the project that raises the most through the site. Another resource? Each other.
I participated as an adviser in a rapid incubator workshop that rainy Tuesday. One immediate sign that Full City was a different breed of challenge: Competition was not the vibe. I watched as these finalists introduced themselves with a 5-minute pitch, complete with an extremely intimidating timer the size of a classroom wall. Yet even with the giant egg timer looming, they worked with each other to refine proposals. They were vulnerable. They were honest about what they didn’t know. And they were supportive of each other because they knew that no single pilot or project could solve Philadelphia’s poverty and hunger issues.
The feedback the participants gave each other — “Don’t be afraid to project!” “It wasn’t clear to me how you’d spend that $5,000, make sure you specify.” —strengthened each project concept.
By the end of the day, collaborations seemed all but inevitable. (“We grow leafy greens that would be great in a smoothie!” “You know I’m always looking for more local farms for strawberries.” “We could grow strawberries!”).
Feasibility is key when courting funders, especially when the challenge involves something as sexy and intangible as innovation, and as critical and urgent as hunger and poverty.
I sat with the Rebel team as they workshopped their concept for a youth-powered corner store that offers affordable, nutritious snacks and disrupts the current supply chain.
Stein’s co-executive director, Tre’Cia Gibson, joined us in the afternoon after class at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she is a freshman. She’s worked with Stein on the Rebel concept since she was a sophomore at Parkway West High School. The college freshman has a lot to do with the organization’s model and mission to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into kids’ daily regime. Their first product, Rebel Crumbles, boasts more than 1 million sold to the Philadelphia School District’s breakfast program.
Rebel currently employs eight students and they hope to use the prize money to employ eight to 12 more at the aptly named Rebel Market. For brick-and-mortar retail mentorship, they partnered with two West Philadelphia businesses that celebrate fruits and vegetables—Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice in Cobbs Creek and plant-based Honest Tom’s Taco Shop in Spruce Hill.
Why did they choose West Philly? Moore, one of Philly’s water ice champions, answered that one. Moore, a Temple University graduate who started his business 23 years ago, chose to locate his flagship store on West Philly’s 60th Street corridor because he wanted to make his product accessible to neighborhood youth.
“It’s bigger than the money,” Moore said. “It’s the community.” He admits—without a tinge of regret—that his business could’ve done better on the Main Line or in Old City. Hiring local youth and training staff who would follow his meticulous quality standards was a part of Moore’s business model, so he enthusiastically agreed to join the Rebel cause for the competition.
What would success look like? I asked. Beyond changing eating behavior, the Rebel team wanted to tackle an even more complex issue—changing adults’ perception of young people. The skills that the students learn, from food production to budgeting and grant writing, include soft skills that have already bettered relationships with teachers and school administrators. This is something that the youth could bring to their next job or their next encounter with the police.
The compounding problems surrounding hunger and poverty in Philadelphia were equally pervasive in the other teams’ project pitches. The Philly Food Rescue team, led by dietician Victoria Della Rocca, aims to reduce food waste and connect volunteers with an app that tracks the movement of surplus food from supermarkets to recipient sites such as food pantries and Philadelphia Housing Authority facilities.
Another team, led by environmental nonprofit First Light Project’s Lois Davidson and Frank Sherman, plans to build a network vertical farms to tackle vacancies and limited real estate in changing neighborhoods.
Cooks Who Care founder Maria Campbell takes a holistic wellness approach to change the entire food industry culture. Campbell cited jaw-dropping statistics in alcoholism, reports of sexual abuse to human resources, and suicide that is common knowledge in the industry.
School district alum Oscar Wang joined forces with restaurant heavyweight Judy Ni (of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Baology fame) to match the pain points in the hospitality industry—Philadelphia restaurant owners’ need for skilled entry-level workers—with that of low-income college students grappling with working to pay for school. They pitched a college alternative program that places students in Philly restaurants.
At the end of the day, the participants cheered each other on as they presented their revised pitches. No one mentioned the $5,000. The magic ingredient in the Full City recipe had popped. It was collaboration and it tasted fresh.
WHYY is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.