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Siobhan Reardon, Free Library of Philadelphia Culinary Literacy Center

Siobhan Reardon sitting at table holding stack of books.

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Food for Thought

No Food Allowed.

If you’ve been to a library, you likely know that edict. But at the Free Library of Philadelphia, the rule doesn’t apply. In fact, they serve up supper on platters.

In the process, through its creative ways, the Free Library is tackling two big-city challenges that on the surface might seem miles apart. And thanks to the innovation of Siobhan Reardon and her staff, it’s doing so all through a single initiative.

The first of the seemingly disparate challenges: illiteracy rates. The second: food. As in, food deserts, poor nutrition, and so on.

It all started when Reardon, president and director of the library system, and her team took advantage of a library renovation to put in a kitchen. That enabled the creation of the Culinary Literacy Center, where Reardon and her staff started a series of adult education programs built around cooking. Through the fun that comes with cooking (and eating!), the center teaches literacy—and so much more. A recipe, notes Reardon, “addresses nominal literacy skills, it addresses math skills, it addresses science, it gets at communications because you have to talk though your recipes, it gets at critical thinking, because you can change a recipe, it is health literacy.”

Not to mention that the multifaceted experience has cultural elements and fosters social engagement; in other words, the list goes on. Today patrons can register for such free or low-cost ($5) classes as Great Garbanzos!, CityLife Clinic: Adult Nutrition Workshop, or A Taste of African Heritage.

Such classes might, for example, shine the spotlight on an overlooked culinary tradition, and in most cases, they likely will offer healthy, inexpensive, and practical nutritional alternatives to the all-to-common fare that’s feeding high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity rates in many urban areas including Philadelphia. Some offerings, meanwhile, provide an opportunity for new Americans to build their English language skills while sharing their culture with their new neighbors and building connections within their new community.

Community members love the program, says Reardon, and that sentiment is confirmed in the numbers. Over 15,000 patrons of all ages participated at the Center during its first two years alone. In response, Reardon and her team are now expanding, creating toolkits to allow for modified programs at other library branches that lack full kitchen resources.