Aramark, AHA fund classes in healthy eating

Carmen Figueroa practices her slicing skills after the chefs’ demonstration, as her friend Carmen Laureano watches. One participant says the classes have made her more aware of what she buys at the grocery, including, for the first time, kale.

Samantha Quinones bought kale for the first time this week - and ate it raw in a salad mixed with some spinach.

Chalk it up to a class on food and nutrition that the 25-year-old single mother of two boys is taking at Congreso de Latinos Unidos in North Philadelphia.

Quinones, who lives in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia, said the class, sponsored by the food-service giant Aramark and the American Heart Association, is making a big difference to her.

"I'm more aware of what I buy at the grocery store," Quinones said. That attentiveness to the array of supermarket foods is what prompted her to buy kale Monday, she said.

Quinones was one of about 20 women and one man - ranging in age from their 20s to late 60s - at Tuesday's class on kitchen basics, mostly vegetable chopping, and cooking terminology.

Volunteer Aramark chefs urged the participants to keep their fingertips curled under while holding the onions and carrots they were chopping.

"The main thing is to know where the knife is," chef Scott Zahren said.

The class is part of a joint effort by the Aramark Corp. and the heart association to improve the diet and health of millions of Americans by 20 percent by 2020.

Aramark, whose charitable foundation provided a five-year "multimillion-dollar" grant to pay for the effort, has also agreed to make changes to its menus at thousands of schools, universities, businesses, hospitals, sports and entertainment venues, parks, and other sites.

Congreso and two other organizations in Philadelphia, Episcopal Community Services and the Federation of Neighborhood Centers, are part of a pilot program that also includes groups in Chicago and Houston.

After the 12-week pilot, called Healthy for Life, the sponsors will analyze results through before-and-after participant surveys, and next year expand what seems to work best at changing behaviors to 500 groups nationwide.

The heart association sets a high bar for ideal cardiovascular health, asserting that only 2 percent of Americans meet the standard, based on blood pressure, physical activity, cholesterol, weight, diet, smoking status, and glucose level.

"The one where we need to do the most work is in helping people achieve a healthy diet," said Penny M. Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.

"The people who are most disadvantaged are people of lower socioeconomic status and are having a real hard time making ends meet," she said.

Congreso, which has programs in education and workforce development, family and housing services, and health and wellness, has long considered nutrition education part of its mission, the tax-exempt organization's chief executive, Cynthia F. Figueroa, said Tuesday.

"It's the hardest kind of program to fund," Figueroa said. "It's one of those commonsense things that doesn't translate into practice."

Carmen Saez, 51, of North Philadelphia, said she had been practicing what she has learned, such as swapping her beloved Pepsi for water with a squeeze of lemon and always having a side salad.

"I love coming here," Saez said. "I'm not the only one who wants to eat healthy and lose weight."

hbrubaker@phillynews.com

215-854-4651 @InqBrubaker