Philadelphia Library Cooks Up Culinary Literacy

What's cooking at the Philadelphia public library? Plenty, now that it has a million-dollar kitchen at its main downtown branch.

The library has whipped up an unusual culinary program designed to improve the city's low literacy rate. Some courses will use recipes and nutrition labels to teach language and math, while others are geared toward immigrant restaurant workers learning English.

About 500,000 Philadelphia adults -- a third of the total population -- don't read above an eighth-grade level, according to library president and director Siobhan Reardon.

"We're looking to raise the bar on the library's approach to dealing with this confounding literacy issue in this city," Reardon said.

The gleaming new kitchen, built with public and private funds, occupies a corner of a floor reserved for meetings and special events. It includes three ovens, a walk-in refrigerator, 16 burners and video equipment to display overhead views of the counter and stove tops. An adjacent terrace will house an herb garden.

Several organizations have partnered with the library to offer culinary literacy classes that officials expect will serve about 2,000 patrons annually starting this summer. They will show people how to cook while teaching important life skills along the way.

The nonprofit Center for Literacy and Penn State Extension is developing a course for adults to learn how to read lists of ingredients, calculate percentages on nutrition labels, create food budgets and modify recipes using basic math.

"It's an opportunity to put learning into a context," Center for Literacy CEO Michael Westover said. "Adults learn best when they're doing."

Iron Chef Jose Garces, who operates eight restaurants in Philadelphia and several others across the U.S., will use the kitchen to support his education program for Spanish-speaking restaurant workers.

About a year ago, the Garces Foundation offered English lessons and food service training to 10 immigrant employees. Today, the program enrolls 70 students working in dozens of eateries across the city -- and it's hard to find an empty demonstration kitchen to accommodate them, said spokeswoman Mallory Fix.

The library cooking space will remedy that, Fix said, noting the foundation has shared its curriculum with the library. Restaurant workers also get library cards and an introduction to other library offerings, she said.

"It's really opening doors throughout the whole city for them," Fix said.

The effort extends to children and teens as well. Chef Marc Vetri's foundation will teach classes aimed at creating healthy eating habits early in life, while the Careers through Culinary Arts Program will offer vocational training for underserved youth interested in the food industry.

Carolyn Anthony, president of the Chicago-based Public Library Association, said it's not uncommon to use pots and pans as teaching tools in buildings normally associated with books and computers. But Philadelphia's focus on literacy through cooking is different, she said.

"Libraries are plugging into whatever larger community concerns are," Anthony said. "We're connecting people with not just print resources but with human resources."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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