By Wendy Ramunno
About 41 percent of Philadelphia kids ages 6 to 17 are overweight or obese. In some neighborhoods the level is much higher: 70 percent in North Philadelphia, for example, which is nearly double the national rate.
“The stats in Philadelphia are pretty shocking,” says Marlene Olshan, Chief Executive Officer of the Vetri Community Partnership (VCP). Olshan and her staff are trying to help break what she calls the cycle of unhealthy eating, in which kids grow up learning bad eating habits at home.
“It’s no different from intergenerational poverty or intergenerational incarceration,” she explains.
VCP’s newest initiative to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic will debut this fall at 10 local after-school programs. Students in the Vetri Cooking Lab will get hands-on culinary training, plus lessons on related STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts.
From Cancer Fundraising to Kids Cooking Classes
Chef Marc Vetri and his partner Jeff Benjamin created the Vetri Foundation for Children in 2008 to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF), which raises funds and awareness for childhood cancer. They continue to support ALSF with the annual Great Chefs Event, which brings big-name chefs from around the country to Philadelphia’s Navy Yard.
In 2010, VCP debuted the Eatiquette program at Girard College’s Dream Camp and expanded it to local schools in 2012. Eatiquette replaces the typical cafeteria assembly line with fresh, family-style lunches. It provides about 9,000 meals per week in area schools and has received national attention for its innovative model.
The VCP also partnered with Maureen Fitzgerald of the Philadelphia Inquirer to expand My Daughter’s Kitchen, her after-school program for teaching healthy cooking on a budget. More than 150 students participated this semester at 31 locations.
Late last year, Vetri and Benjamin shocked the food world when they sold their restaurant group to Urban Outfitters, Inc. to form a unique food-retail alliance. Shortly after, the VCP changed its name from the Vetri Foundation to Vetri Community Partnership, with the new tagline Eat. Educate. Empower. It operates as an independent 501(c)(3) organization.
Learning How to Find and Prepare Healthy Food
Like My Daughter’s Kitchen, Vetri Cooking Lab will be a weekly after-school program, but each class will be set up to accommodate more kids — about 15 or 20 compared to My Daughter’s Kitchen’s five.
VCP hasn’t finalized the list of host sites, but most of them will be schools, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers in North Philly, West Philly and Camden, N.J. “It seems that at every place we’re talking to there’s a real need for quality after-school content,” says Kelly Herrenkohl, VCP’s Chief Operating Officer.
“You can’t just say, ‘Here’s all this healthy stuff.’”
The curriculum is geared to students in grades 4 through 6. It will help kids answer the following questions:
- What is the best food to eat?
- Where can I find it in my neighborhood?
- How can I prepare it in a tasty and inexpensive way?
As the children work through the recipes, instructors will emphasize the importance of eating fresh, nutritious food. But the VCP staff knows that finding quality produce is difficult in many areas.
“We’re not experts on food access, so we’re going to be partnering with people who are,” says Herrenkohl.
For example, once a month, Share Food Program will provide a mobile farmstand at each location so all of the children and their families can shop for discounted produce and talk to onsite chefs about how to prepare it.
Students will also explore various resources for locating healthy food, including a new GPS tracking app developed by middle schoolers at Comcast’s Collaboration Studio in Kensington.
Once students know how to find what they need, they must know how to cook it, and that’s where VCP comes in, explains Olshan. “You can’t just say, ‘Here’s all this healthy stuff.’ Unless they eat it and know how to prepare it, you haven’t really solved that problem,” she says.
Cooking with STEM
The core of Vetri Cooking Lab is hands-on culinary instruction, but teachers will incorporate age-appropriate STEM concepts in a fun way.
“Cooking is math and science and literacy all happening at one time, but we’re really going to pull those lessons out and focus on them,” says Herrenkohl.
“Cooking is math and science and literacy all happening at one time.”
Students will work with fractions, multiplication, division, scaling recipes and, of course, chemistry. “Let’s say you’re creating a fast pickling solution,” says Herrenkohl. “We’ll look at what happens when you put the ingredients together and they’re not the same as they were before — they’ve changed into something different.”
Compared to VCP’s older Culinary Classroom curriculum, where instructors saw kids during the school day just a few times a year, Vetri Cooking Lab is structured to make more of an impact on each child.
“Allowing the kids to have more in-depth instruction and more hours, that’s the goal,” explains Herrenkohl.
Reaching More Kids in Philadelphia and Beyond
When Urban Inc. bought the Vetri Family group last year, they continued the practice of matching all restaurant guest donations to VCP at 100 percent. So as the group expands with Pizzeria Vetri locations in other cities like Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C., its fundraising capabilities increase with each additional restaurant, enabling it to educate more children.
“First and foremost, we want to serve a lot more kids here in Philadelphia,” says Olshan. “We want to go a lot deeper here, mainly because this is home; this is the headquarters of the restaurant group.”
If the Vetri Cooking Lab model is a success locally, VCP will likely replicate it in cities around the country. “We’re really committed to serving all of the communities that the restaurants are serving,” says Olshan. “Wherever there’s a footprint we want to have a presence, some sort of a philanthropic giveback in the community.”
Olshan and Herrenkohl believe that reaching as many children as possible through programs like Vetri Cooking Lab is essential to break the cycle of unhealthy eating within families.
“Look at the big food marketers who are spending billions of dollars marketing to kids,” says Herrenkohl. “They know that kids have influence over what gets purchased.”