When The Cookbook Project (CBP) – a food literacy non-profit – taught skeptical students in the Lower 9th Ward at Our School at Blair Grocery how to make marinated mushroom po-boys, only one of the 18 kids had ever tried a mushroom. It turns out those fungi were a big hit. Husband and wife team Adam Aronovitz (Tulane ’03) and Alissa Bilfield (Tulane PhD Candidate in Public Health) founded CBP nearly five years ago to “bridge the gap between healthy food access and the skills necessary to prepare nutritious food while teaching the impact that food choices have on our personal health, the health of their community, and the health of the environment,” they say.
The heart of the project is an extensive hands-on food/health curriculum that trains teachers, volunteers and community leaders to become Food Literacy Educators who serve as catalysts of change in their communities.
The Food Literacy Educator training begins by teaching participants how youth can master basic cooking techniques, learn how to affordably upgrade their kitchens, and understand how to plan meals using low-cost local and seasonal ingredients based on traditional food culture. Participants are then trained how to teach youth to prepare and grow their own food; to learn how to read labels to make healthy food choices; to understand the history and origin of different healthy foods; to gain healthy food techniques such as pickling and sprouting; to understand the medicinal uses of various foods, and learn how to prepare healthy snacks, salad dressings, breakfasts, drinks, and main meals. The curriculum concludes with meal planning, food budgeting, microeconomics, and a final food culture celebration to showcase new culinary skills in a community food banquet.
“We want to make healthy, culturally relevant food available to everyone that is easy to make and can be prepared on a limited budget,” says Bilfield. “All our recipes are tailored to the specific populations we are working with. We meet our participants where they are at in terms of their food preferences, skills, knowledge, and resources available in their own communities.”
For four years before their return to NOLA in 2014, the dynamic duo trained more than 550 Food Literacy Educators in 22 countries and 35 US states. These educators now continue the hands-on program in their own schools, community health centers, after school programs, community garden programs, summer camps, homeless shelters, churches, hospitals, and community centers.
Since launching in New Orleans, CBP has trained an additional 200 educators including New Orleans -based leaders working with community members at the Youth Empowerment Project, ReNEW Schools, A’s and Aces, The Boys and Girls Club, Hollygrove Market, KIPP Charter Schools, Oldways, several faith-based organizations, Renew School, Wilson Charter School, Youth Run Nola, and Tulane University. Many educators are Peace Corps or AmeriCorps service members, and the project is continuously fueled by Tulane University students.
New Orleans is unique for having one of the most distinct cultural food traditions in the country, with its Caribbean, African, French, Spanish, Creole, Cajun and more recently, Southeast Asian and Latin American influences. Yet, much of New Orleans, with one of the highest child obesity rates in the country, is a food desert with limited access to grocery stores.
“What we do best is equip schools and other community organizations with a curriculum that is easy to implement and very effective in inspiring enhanced food literacy skills that require minimal resources,” says Aronovitz. This sustainable approach “targets and collaborates with organizations that want health education but don’t have the resources to hire outside trainers to come in and lead comprehensive programming.”
Instead of the traditional framework of organizations hosting expensive third-party providers to conduct workshops, CBP trains local leaders to deliver an interactive hands-on curriculum in their schools, camps, churches or community centers through the lens of their unique food culture.
By training organizations’ leaders to deliver the curriculum, “We are building capacity within organizations that are already reaching at risk communities and adding value to the wonderful work already being done by great organizations in New Orleans,” adds Bilfield.
Their success data is off the charts. After five sessions working with CBP Food Literacy Educator Kim Walsh at the ReNEW Schaumburg, 94% of 2nd grade students that learned a new cooking skill practiced it at home with their families, and 95% of them tried at least one new healthy food.
A hands-on service-learning site for both undergraduate and graduate Tulane students, CBP also supervises Master in Public Health graduate practicum internships, is one of eight local non-profits that will serve as a service-learning site for Tulane’s interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE), and hosts several Tulane students each semester through the Center for Public Service. The Tulane student organization, Community Action Council for Tulane University Students (CACTUS), recently awarded CBP with the Trailblazer Award for outstanding, unique, and innovative contributions in public service that are “blazing a trail” for others to follow.
Because of their work in NOLA and their extensive experience teaching the innovative curriculum around the world, Bilfield/ Aronovitz’s project was awarded Propeller’s Social Venture Accelerator Fellowship to bring CBP to New Orleans to tackle the childhood obesity and public health crisis in New Orleans by inspiring systemic change in healthy food access and the local food economy. CBP also won Tulane University’s NewDay Challenge Award ($10,000) and the Victor C. Alvarez Award ($2,500) from the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking.
Recently, the organization teamed up with Revolution Foods, which provides over one million freshly prepared meals every week to K-12 schools nationwide. “We get kids excited about food and educate them on how to prepare healthy meals using the new ingredients they see at school but are not used to eating at home,” Bilfield says. “By building a relationship to healthy fruits and vegetables, we build a demand for healthier options…if you don’t have a relationship with different foods, you are not going to eat them.” CBP will also provide professional development opportunities for school staff to model healthy eating behavior at school.
As an intern fulfilling her 300-hour Tulane Master’s in Public Health internship with CBP, Camillia Claiborn trained to be a Food Literacy Educator and ran a summer program with 50 youth and 16 Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) counselors, the majority of whom had never before taken a cooking class.
She notes, “The highlight of my summer was … when several parents [told] me that their kids were trying new healthy foods at home, and [spending] time in the kitchen. As a graduate student, … chances to work with the community and make real change are rare, but are so critical in my understanding of public health and community-level nutrition.”
“These chances to see the connections between nutrition education, youth, and their families are the reasons why I do this work, and none of this would have been possible without The Cookbook Project’s Food Literacy Educator training program…which gave me the skill-set to meaningfully engage with youth about food and nutrition – something that I feel adds immeasurably to my graduate degree and my education overall,” she added.
To equip youth in your community with life-long food literacy skills, sign up for the next Food Literacy Educator training now at www.thecookbooproject.org/train; it starts in late September.
Author: Julia Lang, Program Manager, Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking