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Make Mine Monday

March 17th, 2012 - By Therese Madden

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When this dinner bell rings, neighbors in one West Philadelphia community answer its call. Everyone pitches in to help make the beginning-of-the-week meal healthy—even the youngest children have their hands in the pot. The goal is to build a stronger community and ultimately, with all that healthy cooking, stronger individuals.



Photos by Matt Campbell

Imagine making dinner with the people in your neighborhood. Not necessarily the people you are friendly with, but a random group of neighbors, many whom you’ve never met. That’s what happens at Sayre Rec Center in West Philadelphia on Monday nights. Tonight there are 54 people for dinner, which means 54 people are making dinner too. The first timers are assigned to the cutting table to learn basic knife skills, “watch your fingers you don’t want your knife to have to leave the board, I’m protecting my fingers that is good.”

There are about 6 people standing around this table cutting up onions and peppers for salsa, with varying success. “My onion bust open, I don’t know why…” 61-year-old Sherry Stephanie has just finished cutting a jalapeño. She’s here to learn some new ways of cooking. “How to not have as much fat, more healthy food, different varieties. Because a lot of time you get tired of making the same old thing and if you watch some of those cooking shows they want something like put a dab of this, a dash of that, and you have to go all over the city and find it. And it cost $20, I don’t need that.”

This class is free and the emphasis is on affordable, healthy cooking. It’s part of a bigger program created by the new non-profit Investing in Ourselves, which focuses on community development. Mondays there is cooking, Thursdays fitness, usually line dancing, and on Saturdays participants go to the Wharton School of Business for financial literacy classes. “The goal of all the programs is really to create community capacity and develop community leaders that are able to work together to think about how to address health and education disparities in their community.” That’s Jill Bazelon, the Executive Director and Founder of Investing in Ourselves, right now the organization focuses on this community around Sayre Rec Center. “Sayre is located at 58th and Walnut Street, it is an underserved community in every sense of the word, low educational achievement, low employment, high obesity.”

The goal is that participants of the program will become community leaders themselves and that the Rec Center will become a hub for the neighborhood. Throughout the room big tables serve as work stations. I’m at the station in charge of the cauliflower salmon salad. The cauliflower is steaming, the salmon comes from a can. Participant, Shante Eley seems to be overseeing the group, specifically the way the celery is getting cut. “Carl I would love for you forever if you would cut it small so I don’t taste the celery. I hate a lot of things, I don’t like celery, I don’t like onions, I don’t like tomatoes, but I love my people and I try everything at least once, I’ll try it.”

A lot of people seem to see the actually eating of the food as lower on the list of reasons for being here. Like the mother and daughter team stirring the sauce for the “inside out lasagna” The daughter’s name tag says, “Patrice,” but she prefers another name. “Cache Starr! I have to give you my stage name you got me live…” Cache is here with her mother, Patricia. “I promised her I would teach her to cook some day this is the easiest way of doing it, we can learn together.” Cache is in her 20’s but even the young kids are helping make this meal too, they are making the salad dressing. About ten kids pass around the bowl. They take turns squeezing the lemon, mixing it and even smelling the dressing. “Hmm that smells good, that kind of smell good.”

When the meal is complete ever one sits down together to eat. Shante Eley takes a break from her meal to look around the room. “I think it’s fun, and we found out some people live closer than we thought and I think it’s a good thing, for us as a community to come together.” As for the taste? “It’s great, I even ate the tomatoes and mushrooms, he has pictures and she has pictures so I did it,” At the end of each dinner instead of dessert there are announcements and a nutrition talk given by existing community leaders.

*The Family Cooking Workshops are designed and implemented by the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative. They  are partnering with Investing in Ourselves to bring this program to the community.


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