When Adam Aronovitz and Alissa Bilfield set out to travel the world and serve others, they could not find a volunteer opportunity that fit their need. Frustrated by administrative obstacles and too much emphasis on volunteers’ personal experience, they decided to develop a food literacy curriculum they could share anywhere in the world. Ultimately Aronovitz and Bilfield went on to create the Cookbook Project to address the root causes of the global public health epidemic of chronic disease as well as environmental issues.
They saw cooking and food choice as a solution and developed an experiential education model to engage youth. The project now helps people connect to food by participating in workshops, training to serve as local leaders, and experiencing cultural exchange. It reacquaints people with local foods and cooking methods and to promotes understanding of the role that food plays in health, the local community, and our global environment. In this interview, the founders discuss the goals of the organization, the curriculum, and several of the projects being conducted across the globe.
Food Tank (FT): What were your original goals for the Cookbook Project, and have they changed?
Adam Aronovitz (AA): At first we didn’t have an overarching goal. Alissa and I were traveling, and we were looking for great volunteer opportunities, and we weren’t finding them. Either they were very cost prohibitive with very high administrative fees, or we’d go to an organization and they’d say, “oh can you help tutor?,” and I’d say “great, what areas do you want me to focus on?” And they wouldn’t really have a follow-up for that, so it seemed like the volunteer work was more for us and less to benefit the community.
So we sat down one summer, and we worked really hard on building a curriculum that we could bring to community centers we would encounter on our travels. And we found, in our first programs in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, that this was such a great model because it didn’t require any resources from the host organization. We were able to come in with a curriculum that was already set up and lead really high-quality programming and then leave tools behind.
Alissa Bilfield (AB): Something that we witnessed when we were travelling was that people all over the world are eating processed food exported from the United States, and there’s a sense in these developing countries of an inferiority complex about their own food cultures, especially amongst the young. They are inundated by mass media and really affected by it, so they are immersed in all these advertisements for Coca Cola, Pizza Hut, KFC, all these fast food chains and processed foods and they feel like they should aspire to saving their money to go to McDonalds. So the curriculum was meant to reinspire youth to be proud of their food culture heritage and to really see the value in their traditional foods.
AA: We’ve definitely shifted over time. Alissa and I personally are less focused on leading programming in organization after organization and are now really building relationships with partner organizations like City Year, Americorps, Peace Corps, and schools across the world. We’d like to be able to build a Cookbook Project community in their organizations so they’re able to continue this work for the long term.
FT: Can you describe the focus of your programs and the types of skills you are teaching?
AA: The focus of our programs is through literacy and cooking education. We’ve found that there are many programs out there offering better access to healthy foods in low-income communities, but there’s definitely a lack of supply-side programming, programming that builds demand for healthy foods and empowers low-income communities with tools to be able to understand why it’s important to eat those foods and how to prepare the foods available to them.
AB: And it’s also important to use a culturally relevant lens in learning about ingredients that they may or may not be familiar with.
FT: Could you describe your leadership model and training?
AA: We have a three-tiered leadership model, and we train Food Literacy Educators. The training program is conducted mostly online, but it’s supplemented with on site immersion. The training program takes place over a month-long period, and through that program Food Literacy Educators become familiar with the curriculum and how to implement it. We also provide a lot of support in helping them to fundraise and network locally and to prepare for the logistics involved in running a program.
They submit a program proposal to us, and we review it and work with them to refine it, and then they go off into the world and implement it. The programs range from a one-session program to an entire year-long program. Our full curriculum helps somebody to lead a full school-year program. We do assessments of the programs at the beginning and the end to gauge how participants are gaining new skills and to what extent they’re learning about local foods and content from the curriculum.
FT: Can you describe the content of your curriculum?
AA: We have a seven-module curriculum, and there’s a certain skill that we highlight in each module. The first one is Food Culture, and that’s understanding the importance of food culture, especially local and traditional food culture and cooking. It involves being able to take recipes that the youth are familiar with from their families and use those as a lens to understand basic nutrition. Then we move into Nutrition Gardens. This varies depending on the communities we’re working with: Some communities plant a full-fledged garden, and other communities do something as simple as a hanging garden using recycled plastic bottles, planting tomatoes or herbs in the bottles and then learning how they can use the food and herbs to prepare health-enhancing recipes. The third module is Food Geography, and this is understanding not only where foods are coming from transport wise but the origin of different types of foods. Understanding why chili peppers, for example, are so prevalent in warm climates, why its important to eat tropical foods when you’re in tropical climates, and why its important to eat foods that are growing in your local environment from a health perspective.
After that is Food Literacy, and this is really the core module of our curriculum. This involves understanding ingredients, being able to identify additives that can be harmful for us, being able to look at recipes and make healthy substitutions. It is about being able to understand how to make healthy food choices and how to start incorporating those into their own cooking. Module five is Food Lab, and this is taking the scientific method and applying it to food. It covers fermenting, sprouting, growing mushrooms and then using these to make superfood teas and cooked meals. The sixth module is Markets and Menus, which is a focus on food economics, so this is really going back to food literacy, but is also about understanding how our food choices not only affect our individual health but that of our community and our global environment. And the 7th module is the Food Culture Celebration, which this is taking everything that’s been happening over the course of the program and cooking a big celebratory meal, inviting community members and then using this as a springboard for youth certified as community food ambassadors to start implementing these tools at the family and neighborhood level.
FT: Where have these been taught, and how many people have participated?
AA: We’ve personally led several projects in the United States, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, India, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Botswana, South Africa, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Nepal. We’ve trained just over 400 food literacy educators to date, and they’re leading programs all over the world, in 22 countries and more than 35 states.
AB: These are the folks on the ground who are implementing the curriculum. They are educators who have gone through the training program, and on average they lead programs that are anywhere from five participants to 75 and up. The programs vary based on the community-based organizations educators are working with.
FT: Can you give an example of youth who’ve taken this work into their communities?
AA: I think one of our most successful projects to date actually started from one volunteer working in the Boston public schools who went through our training program. She worked with her team leader last year to implement a semester-long program with 40 elementary school students in the Blackstone School, which is in the south end of Boston.
They have a really amazing program, so much so that City Year decided to expand the program, and this year we’re working with City Year and a local foundation in Boston called the Barbara Lynch Foundation to train 56 City Year staff members who are working in four different Boston public schools. In each of those schools they’ll be working with about 40 students, so it’s projected to reach 200 students this year.
FT: What sources did you use in developing the Food Literacy Program?
AB: Adam and I are both graduates of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. That program really influenced the development of this particular curriculum, but the curriculum is also a product of direct experience in the field that Adam and I cultivated during the last four years. We started with a model curriculum that was much shorter, maybe five sessions, and we’ve expanded to a seven-module, 25-session curriculum. So initially we were really using the knowledge we gained from the Institute for Integrative nutrition in the field and then seeing what worked and really retooling it based on our direct experience with different populations. We worked in urban areas, in rural areas, in small nonprofits and large nonprofits, in schools and community centers, and I think it’s just direct experience that’s helped us to refine and create a really wonderful product that’s highly transferable.
AA: The curriculum has been super effective in rural subsistence farming communities in Uganda, all the way up to a high-end summer camp that we did a project with out of New Hampshire. We’ve learned that the program is universally applicable because it builds on the knowledge that participants are already coming in with.
I taught for many years in the Boston Public Schools and found that lack of healthy food was really what was holding my students back from being successful academically. They really didn’t have the tools to be able to think clearly and have consistent energy in the classroom, so my focus as an educator, and especially as an experiential educator, is to build hands-on engaging curriculum with concrete learning goals and then scaffold them with engaging and fun game activities. So it’s really a gamified approach to cooking and nutrition.
FT: How did the International Immersion Program develop?
AA: It’s similar to the workshops that we’ve been talking about, but the International Immersion Program is basically a program that multiplies what Alissa and I have been able to do in the field. This training provides an opportunity for local leaders and Food Literacy Educators who have trained with the Cookbook Project to lead an international program. We piloted this a couple years ago with a master’s of public health student at Tulane University who went through the training program, and she went to Costa Rica and for two months led two different programs. The international program provides opportunities for individuals to lead high impact service programming without having to go through a giant organization and tons of administrative obstacles.
AB: A prerequisite is that someone’s gone through the online training program. If they’ve already had a lot of international experience, then we support them in going straight into the field, but if they haven’t then we really recommend they do a program in the US first, just to get grounded in the curriculum before they attempt an international program. Sometimes people come to us and they already have an organization they want to work with, sometimes they don’t, and were able to connect those who don’t with one of our partner organizations.
FT: How can people get involved with the Cookbook Project?
AA: The main way for that to happen is for people to become certified as Food Literacy Educators through the Cookbook Project. We run online training programs at least twice every year in the Fall and Spring. That’s a great way for people who want to implement a community project, but we’ve also had many people train as Food Literacy Educators who didn’t end up leading a project in their community but used these tools in their own families to engage their children, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, or parents, to just bring people together to cook real food.