The Mobile Teaching Kitchen is close to being ready

It looks like a camping vehicle crossed with a food truck, but it’s not for recreation or late-night snacking. No, this Ford Transit 350 Wagon has a more important mission ahead of it: Teaching people how to cook veggies.

Dubbed the Mobile Teaching Kitchen, the van is the key to a new program at Vetri Community Partnership.

Starting this fall, it will visit schools, community events and farmer’s markets in less-affluent Philadelphia neighborhoods and give free lessons in healthy cooking. Info will range from general instructions on how best to prepare different vegetables — Peel? Slice? Chop? Scoop? — to demonstrations of specific recipes. Tips on blanching, sauteeing, seasoning and storage will be relayed during short sessions that repeat over the course of a morning or afternoon.

“It’s the missing final step,” says Marc Vetri, who founded Vetri Community with business partner Jeff Benjamin in 2008. Any effort to get fresh food into the hands of underprivileged families, he says, “is all for naught if they don’t know how to use it.”

As he sees it, the first step is providing money to buy food, something the government does via SNAP and other monetary assistance programs. Second is reducing “food deserts” (i.e. areas where fresh produce simply isn’t available for purchase), a problem several organizations are already working on.

But, Vetri contends, no one’s really talking about the crucial third step: Showing people how to turn those vegetables into meals — and proving those meals can be as delicious as they are healthy.

Reaching the parents

Vetri Community already runs programs showing kids how to use veggies; the new one will target adults, too
Vetri Community already runs programs showing kids how to use veggies; the new one will target adults, too Credit: Darryl W. Moran

Carla Norelli, director of culinary operations for the nonprofit, uses butternut squash as an example.

Even if you’ve been served butternut squash somewhere and loved it, she points out, you might not recognize the pale exterior sitting on the shelves. Once you do, you still might not have any idea how to access the flesh inside its rock-hard exterior, or how to transform the fibrous orange stuff into a sweet, delicious dish.

“One of the important things is just to identify what a product might be and learn how to get into it,” Norelli says.

Turning people into veg-lovers is an area where Vetri Community has a good track record. Via its Eatiquette school lunch program, hundreds of kids around the region have learned how to prepare and serve all kinds of produce as parts of wholesome meals. But these lessons occur during the school day, so they don’t always translate to dinner at home.

“I had a father call me up recently,” Vetri says, “whose daughter kept raving about some zucchini dish she made at school. He wanted to know if I could give him the recipe.”

He did, of course, but that’s just one parent. When he brought up the issue with Vetri Community COO Kelly Herrenkohl, the pair realized that if they created a Mobile Teaching Kitchen, they had the potential to reach thousands more.

Short, simple and broadcast via loudspeaker

Mobile Teaching Kitchen staff will have to be ready to put on a show — something Marc Vetri is fond of doing
Mobile Teaching Kitchen staff will have to be ready to put on a show

The truck itself won’t be outfitted with a stove or sink, but instead act as a transportation and storage device for everything needed. When it rolls up to an event, staffers will unload equipment like induction burners and food processors, plug them into the on-board generator, pull pans and cutting boards from interior cupboards, retrieve ingredients from refrigerated compartments, set up portable hand-washing sinks, and be ready to start their lesson.

The cooking classes will be short and simple, per community outreach manager Amy Falkenstein, the 26-year-old Voorhees native tasked with running the project.

“We want to engage as many people as possible, and don’t want hold them up during their busy days,” she explains. “We’ll probably do them on a repeating loop, every 10 or 15 minutes.”

They’ll also be broadcast via the vehicle’s PA system and built-in flat-screen TV.

“What’s awesome is that I’ll put on the bluetooth headset and my voice will be come out over the speakers,” Falkenstein says. A former junior sous chef at Fork in Old City and kitchen manager at Aramark, she expects to be doing most of the demos herself, at least at start, with the occasional cameo from Norelli.

“In spring 2017 we’ll look to hire a small staff to help me out,” she says, noting that it all depends on how well the initial pop-ups are received — and how much funding the project gets.

Working out logistics

Cooking lessons are not just for classrooms anymore
Cooking lessons are not just for classrooms anymore Credit: Courtesy of Vetri Community Partnership

A private donor kicked in the $125,000 that allowed the Mobile Teaching Kitchen to get off the ground, per Norelli, but additional funds are needed. (Want to donate? Get in touch.)

Some costs will be absorbed via partnerships. The SHARE Food Program, which grows its own produce at Nice Roots Farm in West Allegheny, will provide the ingredients for the cooking classes held at SHARE’s pop-up farmer’s markets in food deserts. Same for Common Market, a community-minded wholesaler of local produce that runs farm stands across the city.

To start, those are the only planned locations for the van, along with a monthly appearance at one of the Vetri Cooking Labs after-school sessions.

“We want to keep it to a minimal level at first,” says Falkenstein. After a few months, she expects to reach out to other potential partners, including other schools and neighborhood organizations.

Finding parking for certain visits might be a concern, she says, but not as much as if it went down as originally envisioned. Marc Vetri had first suggested something like the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation’s Big Rig, a giant semi that has an entire kitchen inside it. Falkenstein talked him down to something more manageable.

“I grew up driving bigger trucks than this,” she says. “I drove it for over an hour the other day and I felt good.”

Feeling good it what it’s all about. “It’s like that old adage,” Vetri says.

“Give a man a fish — or, a good veggie dish, and he’ll eat healthy for a day. Teach him to cook with vegetables, he’ll eat healthy for a lifetime.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...