Healthy cooking on the cheap, brought to city kids by an army of volunteers

Inquirer Food Editor Maureen Fitzgerald watches as Brittany Jordan stirs up the vegetable quiche ingredients in a big bowl as fellow Roberto Clemente Middle School classmates Tatiana Castillo (left) and Emily Gonzalez watch.

Riding the train home from work a few weeks ago, I noticed a teenager who looked familiar, but I just couldn’t place her.

And then it hit me: It was Brittany Jordan, one of my former students from the cooking classes I taught a couple of years ago at Roberto Clemente Middle School in North Philadelphia.

“Oh, my gosh, you were my cooking teacher from Clemente!” she gushed when I went over to say hello.

Then she spoke the words that made my whole year: “I use that cookbook all the time. I love to make those honey-mustard chicken wings.”

I actually felt tears well in my eyes as I gave her a hug.

Volunteers for My Daughter’s Kitchen have been teaching healthful-cooking classes at local urban schools for the last four years, and while each class has its own rewards, it is hard to know just how much the kids retain after the eight-week sessions.

But here was a random and completely unexpected success story that appeared right before my eyes. It gave me hope that at least some of our graduates — nearly 1,000, from North Philly to South Camden — are continuing to cook the recipes they learned in class, using the cookbooks we gave them. Yay, Brittany!

Another unexpected gift was the game-changing donation from Target — $75,000 — in many ways a huge endorsement of what we have been doing. The grant was funneled through our partners at Vetri Community Partnership specifically for My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking program.

“We know businesses thrive in healthy communities,” said Target spokesperson Lee Henderson. “So Target does our part to improve the wellness of the communities where our guests, team members, and their families live and work. With the help of our national and local nonprofit partners, like Vetri Community Partnership for My Daughter’s Kitchen, we support public-health objectives, including food security, physical fitness, and support for children with special health-care needs.”

Camera icon Ed Hille
Volunteers  (from left) Nancy Smith and Nancy Jean Petro and Maria Brown ( in the background) gather in the public room at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.Com headquarters for orientation into the My Daughters Kitchen fall program. Maddy Booth, from Vetri Community Partnership, hands out cookbooks and supplies for the classes.  ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

This fall, as our program continues, about 80 volunteers will be continuing on the mission, teaching about 200 students in 40 classes how to cook dinners for themselves and their families. This week, and for the next eight weeks, children will be learning to chop, sauté, bake, and boil ingredients to make nutritious recipes designed to feed a family of six for about $20 or less.

The goal of the program has remained the same from the start: to provide easy, affordable, home-cooked alternatives to the unhealthy fast food and takeout that have become go-to meals for so many Americans. It began with recipes for my then-college-age daughter, who was looking to cook cheap and healthy meals. I soon realized that these recipes would be great for any family, but especially for families in neighborhoods where there aren’t many options, and where diabetes, heart disease, and obesity have become epidemics — diseases that often result from a poor diet.

And where better to start than with after-school cooking classes for the kids? Along the way, we try to demonstrate how easy, delicious, and fun cooking can be. In this, our 10th semester, we’ll be teaching kids how to make nutritious versions of meals like mini Italian frittatas, chicken tortilla soup, and glazed salmon with steamed broccoli and carrots.

Most classes are in Philadelphia and Camden, although we have one school in Norristown. This semester, we welcome a new class in Elkins Park. Other new schools include Kensington Health Sciences Academy, Mastery Charter School at Smedley, and St. James School.

For me, the greatest joy is seeing how much the children enjoy the process, the mastering of a simple skill like peeling a carrot, the tasting of an avocado, the transformation of raw ingredients into a beautiful dinner, like a beef stir-fry, and then the sitting down to share the results.

As of this fall, our total student enrollment exceeds 1,100 since the program’s start. We have prepared nearly 900 home-cooked meals, and logged more than 5,500 volunteer hours. More than $160,000 has been donated to support this endeavor, including the most recent grant from Target. Our most sincere thanks to all who have donated and who continue to give.

Of course, none of this would be remotely possible without the Vetri Community Partnership, which manages the program, scouting new locations, coordinating volunteers, assembling hundreds of cookbooks, and even stepping in to teach a class in a pinch. My continued thanks to Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin, who said yes when I approached them about a partnership, and for the entire staff at VCP, especially Maddy Booth and Chelsea Schmidt, who spend hours making sure the entire program runs smoothly, and who somehow manage to make all the volunteers feel like they are doing the most important work in the world.

In truth, it is one of the most empowering and rewarding lessons to teach a child: how to make a home-cooked supper.