Monica Lapenta wears many hats. A native of Italy, now dedicated Baltimorean, she is executive director of the Italian Cultural Center of Maryland, an award-winning children’s book author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, an activist, a mom, and a passionate, self-taught chef. Lapenta is also the founder of the Be a Chef for a Day Program, whose mission is to raise awareness about child hunger and malnourishment and teach children how to cook healthy food on a budget.
The Be a Chef for a Day Program began as an offshoot of a two-day Italian culture and food festival that Lapenta organized in 2015. Lapenta met Susan Monaco, who then worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Chesapeake, at the festival. Monaco asked if Lapenta would consider creating a program to teach mentees, with the help of their mentors, how to shop and make a healthy homemade meal on a very limited budget. Lapenta agreed, and the program was a success. But working with the kids and families in the program also opened Lapenta’s eyes to the disparities and high rates of food insecurity in Baltimore and the United States as a whole.
“I was very naïve about my idea of the U.S.,” says Lapenta. “The more I learned, the more upset I got. Five years later and I’m still upset. Maybe ‘upset’ is not the right word—I’m appalled.”
Lapenta wanted to do more to help. She expanded her program to Govans Elementary, where she taught afterschool classes on cooking and making healthy food on a budget. She then added a program at Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School (as part of The Baltimore Food Project), Guilford Elementary and Middle School, and other schools in Baltimore. “I wanted to give kids the skills and the knowledge that it’s possible to cook healthy, budget-friendly meals at home,” says Lapenta.
One kid made a big impact on Lapenta. “One of the biggest joys for me was a boy in one of my classes,” says Lapenta. The boy’s mother, a young single mom, enrolled her son in Lapenta’s afterschool cooking class because he was not passionate about anything and had to repeat a grade. The social worker, the teacher, and the community school coordinator suggested he try Lapenta’s course as a solution. “He got really into cooking,” says Lapenta, “and in the last class he prepared a meal for his mom. She was beyond grateful.”
Part of the ’s mom’s anxiety around food, says Lapenta, is that she felt guilty and ashamed that she couldn’t afford to constantly provide her son with more and better food. After taking Lapenta’s class, the boy and his mother started cooking, planning and budgeting, and food shopping together. Lapenta says this meant that were facing the challenges and coming up with solutions as a family.
Before the pandemic began, Lapenta had plans to expand the Be a Chef Program to reach more schools and more people along the York Road corridor. With COVID-19, schools closed and access to food became even more of an issue for many families. Lapenta wanted to help. She started cooking meals at the B-More Kitchen Food Incubator. Since March, Lapenta and volunteers have cooked over 90,000 hot dinners delivered daily at the doorsteps and distributed more than 300,000 meals to families in the area. They also give out bags of groceries and boxes of vegetables.
Conveniently accessing healthy food has been and continues to be an issue for many of the residents along the York Road corridor, says Lapenta. The last grocery store in the neighborhood recently closed and a new one has yet to open, which makes food shopping particularly challenging for people without cars.
To address this problem of food deserts, Lapenta had decided to open a mobile healthy food market and culinary classroom, the BaCfaD Beat Hunger Mobile Teaching Kitchen and Grocery Shop. The BaCfaD Beat Hunger Mobile Teaching Kitchen and Grocery Shop will offer fresh produce and ready to eat, made from scratch nutritious meals to everyone in need; cooking classes to children ages seven and up; and workforce development to under-served teens and young adults by employing them through the mobile grocery and kitchen and training them as chefs.
The OSI Community Fellowship will allow Lapenta to buy the truck, which has a commercial kitchen for training and classes and a retail space. It will also allow her to focus the next 18 months on this project. “How do we deliver for the families?” says Lapenta. The BaCfaD Beat Hunger Mobile Teaching Kitchen and Grocery Shop is one way.