Mixers, bowls, spatulas and students dressed in aprons amongst thousands of hardbacks don’t sound like a typical way to spend an afternoon at the Free Library of Philadelphia. But to one local organization, it’s the exact way to combat two of the city’s growing concerns: illiteracy and malnutrition.
According to the Center For Literacy of Philadelphia, nearly half a million adults in the city are considered low literate and some live in poverty, which as soared up to 27 percent in the city. Wishing to address this problem in a new and innovative way, the Free Library joined forces with local chefs and food organizations.
“The Culinary Literacy Center was the brainchild of our president and director, Siobhan Reardon,” said the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Specialist, Liz Fitzgerald.
Having opened in June 2014, Fitzgerald said the library’s fourth-floor Culinary Literacy Center classroom took the place of a staff cafeteria that was not being used by the library’s staff. Fitzgerald said that before she even came on board at the library’s culinary specialist a year ago, the library had made connections with nutritional foundations in the city and began to talk about how to put the space to productive use.
“Once the initial connections were made, it’s been really easy,” Fitzgerald said. “Our program is built on partnerships and collaborations.”
One such collaboration is with the Vetri Foundation and the foundation’s co-founder, Marc Vetri.
Known around Philadelphia as the head chef and founder of various Vetri Family Restaurants, Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, started the Vetri Foundation for Children in 2008. The foundation began as a supporter of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and soon became a national leader in educating children on how to achieve a healthy mind and body through the food on their plates.
The Vetri Foundation’s communications coordinator, Danielle Zimmerman, has only been with the foundation for six short months, but said she has seen just how beneficial the VFFC’s message and the CLC really are.
“This is an intensive food kitchen,” Zimmerman said about the CLC. “They learn a lot here. They can go home and prepare anything they want. We all need to cook for ourselves and be healthy.”
Each Wednesday, students from Building 21 High School step into the CLC and get a hands-on lesson from VFFC chefs. The curriculum was created by Marc Vetri and the VFFC culinary team to teach students kitchen skills and nutrition basics.
Zimmerman said that not only are they incorporating life skills into the class but they are also letting students explore culinary literacy in a fun environment.
“We see it as the teaching of literacy skills through a context and the context is cooking,” Fitzgerald said. “As far as I know, no one has ever put those two words together before so we have a really unique opportunity to define what culinary literacy is. I would love to play part in having every resident in Philadelphia be able to cook a meal from scratch. So there’s no reason why we can’t help to make that happen.
Two of the VFFC’s chefs that have been active in spreading the foundation’s mission are Joan Jablonoski and Carla Norelli. Both have been at the foundation for less than a year. Having been in the culinary industry for over 15 years, Norelli said that the job of program manager came with some learning curves but that the advantages of working for VFFC out way the negatives.
“This setting is entirely different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Norelli said. “We have a super excellent team. We get to work with kids all the time and people are excited to have us around.”
“You kind of get to be the fun part of their [the kids’] day,” Jablonoski added.
Along with working in the CLC, the VFFC has started their own programs such as My Daughter’s Kitchen and Eatiquette in the city’s elementary, middle and high school cafeterias. The Eatiquette program assists in introducing fresher ingredients into school lunch menus as well as provides advice on how to properly use cooking equipment and bring family style eating to lunch tables. The VFFC’s programs and courses offer an alternative to the unhealthy options that surround children in the city. Jablonoski, Norelli and other VFFC chefs travel to 11 schools and push the message that healthy bodies equal healthy lives.
“Us coming in is a big change,” Jablonoski said. “They’re used to their routine and we’re bringing in a whole new army of things to tackle so there’s a little bit of backlash but most of our schools are extremely excited about it.”
Norelli explained that working with schools only allows a certain amount of classes to be taught and that the National School Lunch Program has guidelines they need to abide by such as calorie intake and food group options. Even with these restrictions along with long working hours, both chefs said it’s all for the betterment of improving children’s’ understanding of nutrition through the foundation.
“This is pretty much everything that I’ve always wanted to do – educate people about food,” Norelli said. “Especially reaching children so they can create healthier lifestyles in the beginning and not have to catch up.”
“I feel like we’ve won the job lottery,” Jablonoski added. “We want to teach them things that they can adopt into their lives. I’m happy to be in this position.”
– Text and photos by Addy Peterson and Kelsey Stanger.