Brainfood’s Francisco Rivera, center, and Paul Dahm talk with a customer at Union Market, where Brainfood sells its Homegrown line of products. (Sara Carnochan/Brainfood Homegrown)

Plenty of kale fronds were scorched in pursuit of the perfect chip before Francisco Rivera got the recipe just right.

Now, the 26-year-old can rip the largest leaves into uniform shards while holding a conversation about packaging. He can eyeball the right amount of blended oil and Italian spice to rub into their crevices before popping them into a convection oven to get impossibly crisp in just 20 minutes.

He will tell you that after “a lot of trial and error,” he hit on the perfect blend of nutritional yeast and Parmesan to lend cheesy balance to the seasoning blend. And he will hold the recipe for that blend as close to his chest as a royal flush.

The thing is, the kale chips are his.

That sense of ownership is important, says Paul Dahm, executive director of Brainfood, a Washington-based nonprofit group that hired Rivera to head production of its Homegrown line of retail foods, which launched last spring.

Since its founding in 1999, Brainfood has used food as the springboard for urban youth development, teaching teenagers how to chop onions and show up on time through popular after school-programs. The idea is to help them build the skills they’ll need to join the workforce — and perhaps cook a decent dinner on the side — while reducing the number of young people in the District who are neither in school nor working.

As the local food economy ballooned in recent years, Brainfood decided to hitch it to a job-creation project by turning kale into chips and underemployed people into entrepreneurs.

The Homegrown project’s hypothesis is this: What if the sorts of foods that have turned accountants into artisans could create careers for people who have few other prospects?

“I don’t know how to make $10 pickles accessible to everyone,” said Dahm. “If there’s a market for a $10 pickle or a $5 glass of ginger beer, why can’t Francisco come up with his version of it and sell it to those folks, so that he’s at least making money off of it?”

Homegrown’s $5 bags of kale chips were an early success for Rivera. Washington cookbook author Aviva Goldfarb called them “hopelessly addictive” after sampling the chips at an event this past winter and wondered how he’d gotten them so crispy. Rivera, a Brainfood program graduate who became the deviled egg expert at his last pub-kitchen job, has since refined the Homegrown brand’s recipes for sweet potato chips, flavored popcorns, cold-pressed juices and other products now for sale at Homegrown’s space at Union Market, plus at DC Brau Brewing and 3 Stars Brewing.

More than bar snacks, the packaged foods are a way for the nonprofit organization to stretch the meaning of “value-added,” proving perhaps that people, as much as local foods, are worth the investment.

Kitchen associate Ryan Williams, left, and food production head Francisco Rivera work on products for Brainfood's Homegrown project. (Molly Madigan Pisula/Brainfood Homegrown)

Other nonprofit groups are harnessing the potential of food-based businesses to benefit underserved youth and provide new income streams to support their own work.

In New Orleans, Liberty’s Kitchen launched in 2008 to provide culinary jobs and training to 16-to-24-year-olds who might otherwise be disconnected from the local economy. Their work? Making thousands of meals a day for low-income public school children while getting a taste of jobs in commercial kitchens. Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, a 100-acre ranch near Salinas, Calif., also puts young adults, many of them first-time offenders, to work in the kitchen in hopes that they’ll enter the culinary workforce.

Brainfood has long been connecting the dots between higher unemployment rates among urban teens and the need for reliable kitchen workers. But its latest venture aims a little higher. The Homegrown project, though still small in scale, is teaching participants such as Rivera to not only be good employees but also think like business owners.

The approach challenges employees to create products that people will buy and to reinvent those that don’t sell, as at any other business. There’s a lot riding on their decisions and a big reward when ideas succeed.

“Sure, there’s risk and all that,” John Fisk, director of the Arlington-based Wallace Center at Winrock International, said of harnessing market demand to fuel youth development.

He has studied food-oriented nonprofit groups and can describe the pitfalls. But he said he also sees the potential of an entrepreneurial approach: “You get control of your own destiny, and you get to create jobs for others.”

‘My own business’

Alexander Moore, chief development officer at D.C. Central Kitchen, whose culinary training programs have reduced recidivism and set a national example, has been keeping an eye on the potential of the Homegrown project.

“Given the diverse and robust nature of our food community, I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what that offers nonprofits,” Moore said. “For them to be at Union Market is good for their bottom line but also reaffirming for young people who might not visit on their own. They feel like they belong [in the food economy] because they’re offering a high-quality product.”

Seventeen-year-old Madelyn Bullock has become Homegrown’s biggest brand ambassador at the Union Market stand, where she works on weekends while finishing high school in Southeast Washington. She has her own set of food-business dreams since starting out in one of Brainfood’s after-school programs two years ago.

Now, she said, “cooking is the only thing I’ve ever been passionate about. Ever.”

Bullock will follow that newfound passion next year to Miami, where she will attend a four-year culinary arts program at Johnson & Wales University.

“I feel like the plan is still in the making,” she said over the phone after school. “I just know I want my own restaurant. I really want my own business, to make something for me.”

That exuberance is what jumped out at Richie Brandenburg, director of culinary strategy for Edens, Union Market’s developer, when he gave Brainfood students a tour of the space early last year.

“Honestly, I’ve given so many tours at Union Market, but these kids were so engaged,” he said. “They asked me to sit down afterward and made appointments with me about food career stuff — I mean, fully, fully impressed me.”

Drawing support

The Homegrown project had just begun to produce food and a few jobs, and Brandenburg thought Union Market — with its entrepreneurial thrust and focus on locally crafted goods — would be a good launchpad for its products. He offered Brainfood a small space, rent free.

Many others have contributed their support. Chef Teddy Folkman of Granville Moore’s serves on Brainfood’s board and has helped Homegrown source local produce for its products and connect with retail outlets. Several other Washington chefs have donated food and time to Brainfood fundraisers.

Prepping products at the commercial kitchen Brainfood shares with a day-care center and church near downtown CityCenterDC, Rivera handed out samples of his latest creations: a refreshing apple-ginger juice that he’s considering fermenting, smoked paprika sweet potato chips as thin and crunchy as their kale counterparts, and a piquant caramel popcorn made with a Japanese spice blend from Bazaar Spice, a neighboring vendor at Union Market.

“We used brown sugar for the caramel, and it’s a little grainy,” said Molly Pisula, recently hired as the Homegrown manager, as she vetted the new popcorn with Rivera. “But the flavor is there, a little heat at the end.”

Here, failure is okay, especially because more than half of new food businesses fail in their early years. At Homegrown, it happened to the salt-and-vinegar kale chips (poor texture) and the roasted chickpeas that could break a tooth if they got stale.

“The way I look at it, everything you do is a risk,” said Brandenburg, who says young people in particular have an incentive to jump headfirst into the food scene.

His advice: “Skip the career change part, and go ahead and do what you want to do.”