When the Parkway Central Library in Philadelphia, Pa., began renovating its fourth floor a couple years ago, it decided to expand the tiny kitchen that it had used for events and turn it into a tool for combating the city’s low literacy rates, which were estimated at more than half the adult population in 2009. Last month the library kicked off the first Culinary Literacy Center in the nation, aimed at helping children and adults with reading, math, and healthy eating.

“I’m over the moon about this program,” says former children’s librarian Elizabeth Fitzgerald, who began managing the development of the Culinary Literacy Program for the Philadelphia Free Library in March. “I have the goal of every resident of this city to be able to cook a meal from scratch. I’ve thought a lot about the barriers: accessibility to whole foods, not having witnessed anybody cook ever. It’s also about a level of fear. In the beginning, you make a lot of mistakes. Math is a really big challenge for a lot of people. The recipe calls for one-third of a cup, but what does one-third of a cup look like? Or the recipe says for four people, but I have six people in my family.”

To overcome those obstacles and combine literacy and cooking, the center is partnering with a number of food and health-oriented foundations including Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Get Healthy Philly, Penn State Extension Nutrition Links, and the Vetri Foundation for Children. And it has classroom space to accommodate 35 students along with a state-of-the art kitchen with a demonstration island, nine stainless steel prep tables, a grill top, 16 burners, three ovens, a walk-in fridge, and an outdoor patio and herb garden.

At present the center is trying to schedule 15 to 20 programs a month, a combination of cooking for health, learning to cook, and cooking classes. People can learn how to use knives, prepare meatless meals, and make nutritious cookies. There is also a four-week program for kids now that school’s out, Summer Thyme Cooks, run by the Vetri Foundation. And when school starts in the fall, the library plans to include food education as part of its Literacy Enrichment After-school Program (LEAP).

Fitzgerald would like to create cookbooks with the recipes the classes make. For now, she is posting them on the center’s blog, like this one for Corn and Pepper Soup.