FLINT, Michigan -- What is the definition of ‘culture’ and what does it mean to kids on Flint’s eastside? How does culture relate to food and food accessibility? Changing the definition of words can possibly lead to confusion, but it can also spur a deeper understanding that leads to growth and healing. These are the questions and ideas being discussed by a group of teenagers inside of Asbury Church in Flint
At Asbury, the youth-led program Sizzling Culture is working on showing the community what is Flint’s culture through the creative expression and cultural exchange with food and cooking.
When I walked into Asbury Church to interview Sizzling Culture’s members, Desiree Duell, the director of community development, greeted me at the door. Her passion for the younger generation in Flint was readily apparent. After a quick introduction, she walked me downstairs to the room where the teens were actively brainstorming on the concept of culture. On a large dry-erase board in the front of the room, written underneath the question of ‘what is culture?,’ different ideas were listed: traditions, environment, celebrations, and religion.
"We’re teaching the youth about food access and security. It’s really the youth’s voice that is most important," said Desiree Duell, Community Development Director at Asbury Church and co-founder of Sizzling Culture.
At the center of the board was the word ‘Flint,’ surrounded by all the different things everyone in the room felt represented the culture in our city. Berston Field House, Flint Farmers Market, Back to the Bricks, Coney Islands, and the Crim were just a few of the things that were identified.
These central and collective experiences and places were the guiding ideas behind what kind of food could be prepared that would adequately represent Flint. The goal was to decide the possibilities and then correlate the meal with produce from Asbury Farms. These meals would be designed as a prototype for meal kits for the community.
Sizzling Culture was started a year ago with the support of a grant from the Community Foundation. Since the start of the program, Asbury has been able to hold two sessions, one last fall and one this spring. The hope is to make the program go year-round.
“We want to make sure that the kids are getting paid to be here,” Duell said. “They need jobs, this is a farm and lots of kids work on the farm and this program is trying to meld all the kids and engage them together.”
Duell is a fourth-generation Flintstone. She considers herself the facilitator of the program and ultimately wants to strengthen grassroots movements in Flint and remind community members that before General Motors came and left, Flint was a mom-and-pop city.
“We’re [Sizzling Culture] building a collective business,” she said. “It’s really thinking radically different, different forms of economies, different models, co-op models. When we talk about culture, we need to bring back some buried history; the Teamsters, community organizers, and grassroots movements, you know? This is the birth of the labor movement here, right? It would be important that we build a business, an equitable business that reflects our values.”
Duell wants the work that is being done at Asbury Farms to have longevity and a lasting impact.
“Maybe none of these kids are going to be working in cooking, but they will know how to cook,” she said. “They will know about food security and access. They will know about Flint culture and they will feel pride in that.”
"It's just having like a family to cook with, with no restrictions, because they're all the same age," said Alexis Edmonston, 17, co-founder of Sizzling Culture at Asbury Farms.
Duell works alongside Alexis Edmonston and Jaydin Wistrand, two teenagers who lead the group and group activities. Edmonston and Wistrand are the perfect examples of how essential a program like this is in Flint.
Edmonston started working for Asbury Farms a year ago. While walking through the Eastside Franklin Park neighborhood, she came across the farm and asked the director if she could possibly find work as a farmhand.
”The idea was I was going to go work on the farm, you know, pull up carrots in the ground. And next thing you know, I was having interviews,” Edmonston said.
Shortly after being hired at Asbury Farms, Edmonston came up with the idea for the name ‘Sizzling Culture’ for Asbury’s Youth Ambassador program. The program has allowed for unique experiences and interactions. In April, Sizzling Culture finished a ‘zine project with Food Solutions New England. Edmonston described the experience with huge interest.
“We had talked about cooking with herbs, we talked about that and I had to explain to them what food access and food security was,” Edmonston said. “You want to hear what it's like in Flint, that it's different from other places. In terms of that, again, with the farm, you're not going to find things like that everywhere in terms of access. Where I live, the nearest market is a mile away. If you want a Kroger's, that is two miles away. So if you're walking or taking the bus, you have to think is it worth it, especially on a hot sunny day or maybe when it's raining, and do you really consider that access?”
Edmonston said the biggest things she has learned this past year are related to food access and food security.
“I've never thought about it until things like this.” Edmonston,17, said. Edmonston, who attends Mott Middle College, also works on graphic design for Sizzling Culture and enjoys cooking unique foods.
“I like a lot of seafood, I have made my own lobster tail before. With a job like this, you have to learn to look,” she said. “So I cook a lot of different things, but that's the most fun to cook. [Here] it's different from cooking at home or cooking like you have to. It's even better because I'm a social person cooking with all these people downstairs. It's really fun. We were making, there's no name for it, but beet, apple, carrot juice. If you were doing this at home, you'd be cutting, peeling, and washing. But with them, you're having the conversation about how a beet looks so juicy, but it tastes like a potato. It's just having like a family to cook with, with no restrictions, because they're all the same age.”
aydin 'Jay' Wistrand co-leads the Youth Ambassador program, Sizzling Culture, at Asbury Church.
Wistrand also spoke with excitement about Sizzling Culture and what it provides to participants.
“We got this grant program that gave us like $5,000 to spend on this [Sizzling Culture],” Wistrand said. “We bought a big wok pan, it’s a good one too. It's not like no American pan, the American ones have the bottom that’s flat. It's like this big pan, but it's all round. It’s used for stir fry. It’s nice. We also got a bunch of new knives, new pots, and new pans. It’s cool learning how to cook stuff.”
Wistrand has had a unique experience and prior to being a leader for Sizzling Culture, he worked on the farm during the winter.
“I helped take care of a whole lot of carrots, a lot of lettuce, kale, beets and they’re growing garlic out there right now,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to cooking carrot cake. I love carrot cake and we are going to learn to cook it this week.”
Leading and working with Sizzling Culture is a big commitment for the teens taking part.
“Make sure you want to get involved, because it's time-consuming, it eats up your week,” Wistrand said. “You've got to actually be committed to learning how to cook. Cooking and learning farming, it takes work. You gotta be willing to learn, and a lot of kids aren't willing to learn how to cook yet.”
Sizzling Culture and the team working for the youth-led program are brave, creative, and willing to write a new history for Flint that is authentic to its culture. They’re willing to change the narrative and create a space that welcomes everyone and is affordable. They’re willing to be resourceful and learn unique and creative ways to make healthy food accessible to everyone in the community.
“When we frame this work around culture, it’s a way for them [Sizzling Culture] to speak about barriers in a way that feels empowering,” Duell said. “They can expand our recipes and the things we like to do in ways that are still authentic to Flint.”