The Urban Nutrition Initiative

Author: Lisa Marie Patzer

As a new employee at the University, it is a daily experience for me to discover something new on campus.  Last week was no different.  While walking through the Franklin Building Annex where I was attending new employee training, I smelled the most wonderful scent of fresh apples.  The aroma was coming from the other side of a door.  I poked my head in and met Brian Cassidy, a Nutrition Education Coordinator for the Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI).  He was busy sorting apples into large grocery bags for a school program.  I asked him if I could come back for an interview to find out more about the organization.  He agreed and on October 7th I met with Brian and Neena Pathak, also a Nutrition Education Coordinator for the UNI.

UNI is part of the  University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and The School District of Philadelphia’s EAT.RIGHT.NOW. Nutrition Education Program. Their primary mission is to facilitate nutrition education programs in public schools to address issues of poor nutrition and physical fitness in West Philadelphia.  UNI organizes school day, after school and summer learning opportunities for more than 10,000 students and their families at 20 public schools in Philadelphia. Their programs include after school cooking clubs, community gardens and giving students the opportunity to share the food they grow at farmers market in the local neighborhood.

I asked Neena and Brian how they became involved with UNI.  Turns out, they are both proud Penn alumni.  Neena (GED’10) taught English in the public school system while working on her Master’s degree in education at Penn.  She is passionate about urban education and food justice.  Working for UNI provided an outlet to pursue these interests.

Brian (GED’10) taught high school in Camden NJ for two years while he attended the Graduate School of Education at Penn.  His first introduction to UNI was through the University City High School garden located at 36thand Filbert. Brian wanted to find a way to engage with youth about nutrition and food justice.  He soon found himself working full time for the organization.

In addition to their standard school programs, Brian and Neena are actively developing new ways of engaging youth.  One of the programs Brian is managing partners University of Pennsylvania student volunteers with students from Parkway West High School.  Using nutrition curriculum developed by Drexel University, the high school students are creating music videos about comfort foods and developing a healthy emotional relationship to food.

Neena is working with the University City High School on a cooking enrichment class that teaches students the basics of nutrition and healthy cooking.  At the end of the class, they will have a Top Chef style competition that will emphasize the importance of their Think A.H.E.A.D. strategy. This involves preparing food that is Accessible, Healthy, Easy, Affordable, and Delicious.

Are you interested in nutrition, food justice, community gardening and empowering youth? Find out how you can volunteer for UNI by contacting Jarrett Stein, volunteer coordinator, at


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Filed under Lisa Marie Patzer, Philadelphia, Sustainability at Penn, Uncategorized, Volunteering

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