Here’s another image of Philadelphia, one less familiar than the Liberty Bell or the city’s iconic LOVE sculpture: Twenty-two percent of the city is food insecure, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. The national average is 15 percent. Philadelphia also has the highest rate of deep poverty of any American city – that is, people living on half the income the federal government deems poverty level.
“The situation here is pretty dire,” Kathy Fisher of the Coalition Against Hunger told The Notebook, a publication of the Philadelphia public schools. “Hunger and poverty go hand in hand. The fact is that we are the poorest big city in the nation. That is a problem here.”
Food and cooking go hand in hand too, which is why Vetri Community Partnership’s mobile teaching kitchen and the Share Food Program mobile farm stand have begun parking their trucks at 10 schools throughout the city this fall to address issues of food access. When parents pick up their kids from after-school programs, they can also snag $40 worth of fresh produce, meat, and poultry for $20, as well as learn how to braise those collards and serve them with roasted sweet potatoes and apples. The pilot program is meant to close the gap between food access and education, making the procurement of fresh produce and wholesome ingredients convenient and making cooking dinner on any given night not only possible but probable.
“There’s enough food in Pennsylvania to feed everybody,” said Amy Falkenstein of Vetri Community Partnership. “But not everybody knows where they can get it and how to prepare it in a way they’re going to like.”
That’s where Falkenstein comes in with Vetri’s mobile teaching kitchen – a Ford transit van with a cutaway chassis (easier to maneuver down Philly’s narrow, 18th-century streets than a traditional food truck). With an oven, burner, and sink and enough mixing bowls, cutting boards, and various tools for 24 participants, she guides kids and parents through a recipe that takes about 15 minutes.
Her lessons focus on technique – how to quickly core a cabbage, emulsify a vinaigrette, remove the thick peel of a butternut squash. She also tries to open up the door to creativity and customization so that recipes seem less like one-offs and more like templates that can be modified according to seasonality and taste – additional honey in the vinaigrette, more kick to the collards.
“In 15 minutes, you’re going to walk away with new cooking techniques and nutrition ideas and then be able to take a few steps and pick up the things you just learned about,” Falkenstein said. “We’re eliminating the lack of convenience piece.”
In the early aughts, a report mapping food access in the city determined that Philadelphia’s lower-income communities also had the worst supermarket access and the highest rates of diet-related deaths. Those findings spurred Philadelphia City Council hearings, which led to the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, $30 million in state funds over three years, and praise from Michelle Obama.
In October, Philadelphia magazine reported a “grocery store boom,” but Falkenstein still finds fresh fruits and vegetables a bus ride away from her Center City neighborhood, and the Share Food Program’s Beth Broady has heard the same thing from shoppers at the mobile farm stand.
“A lot of times the parents have had grocery stores near them close,” said Broady. For such residents, the ingredients available at the Share Food mobile farm stand are a game changer. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I saved 30 minutes from going to the store.’ It’s: ‘Oh, I don’t have to go an hour and half out of my way to get groceries this week.’ ”
So far, the majority of those who participate in the mobile teaching kitchen lessons purchase the ingredients from the cooking demonstration, effectively driving demand for the discounted produce on sale through Share.
“So far, we’ve noticed a huge increase in sales with our partners with the added bonus of the demonstration piece,” Falkenstein said.
Share’s mobile farm stand sells fruits and vegetables at bargain-basement prices – a bunch of kale or collards for $1; apples and bananas at four for $1 – and also sells boxes, kind of like a cut-rate Blue Apron, filled with proteins such as chicken breasts and beans, as well as onions, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens. On average, at least one item in the box comes from the organization’s Nice Roots Farm. The boxes can be purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food ACCESS cards, cash, or credit.
Before the cooking classes started, Broady said customers at the mobile farm stand would often ask how she likes to prepare a certain ingredient or what to look for when shopping. They might buy the ingredient they inquired about or not. With the presence of the mobile teaching kitchen, those interactions have been built into the model, and curiosity is rewarded with confidence – and the tools for repeated success.
“That will hopefully not just benefit people’s lives in the short time they’re with us but also when they’re cooking at home and shopping at the farmers market or supermarket,” Broady said.
By installing themselves at schools and community centers, Vetri and Share hope to encourage a kind of intergenerational learning that can lead to greater health for all members of the family.
“When we provide education on food for children, we hope that information goes back with them and is shared,” Falkenstein said. “But when we’re engaging with a child and family or community member alongside that child, then it’s a conversation: ‘Let’s cook this together.’ ”
• Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.