The West Philadelphia homeless shelter Jane Addams Place is housed in a converted church that's crumbling around its residents - on a recent count, 34 mothers, 73 kids, and untold mice.

But down in the kitchen, staffers opened a massive refrigerator to reveal an unexpected bounty: white asparagus, eggplant, arugula, cabbage, fresh herbs, and carrots in exotic purples and yellows.

It represents a bold attempt to change one of the most demoralizing aspects of shelter life: the food.

Kelly Davis, executive director of Lutheran Settlement House, which runs the shelter, hopes that by serving more appealing and healthy meals, she'll make a lasting impact on residents, who stay, on average, seven months.

"It's about embedding those skills while they're with us," Davis said. "It's an incredible opportunity we have to change this cycle of unhealthy eating and overeating."

Shelters across the city are slated for menu makeovers, following new Philadelphia comprehensive food standards that call for more fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, reduced sodium, and eliminating trans fats and deep-fried foods.

But actually making those changes? Not so easy. Where it has happened, it's usually because someone has made it a personal project.

At Jane Addams Place, that's Davis. When she arrived four years ago, she was disheartened by the meals: mayonnaise-heavy pressed-meat sandwiches, watery spaghetti with tomato sauce, Thousand Island-drenched iceberg lettuce.

But change was elusive. "It took me three years to move the needle," she said.

The obstacles were financial and institutional: Her shelter's $1.1 million budget has not been increased since the house opened nine years ago. Most of its food, funded by the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, comes from a city warehouse, tied to menus provided by a nonprofit, Health Promotion Council. The kitchen has just 50 cents per meal to supplement that. And after years of opening cans, staffers didn't know much about cooking fresh food.

So Davis called on the nonprofit Food Trust for help, training staff and running nutrition-education sessions for the mothers. She also sought out nutrition-savvy cooks (and raised wages to attract them).

On a recent morning, staffers gathered for a professional-development session led by the Food Trust's Jamese Kwele. The focus was on boosting bioavailability of nutrients, antioxidants, and minerals - for example, pairing spinach or beans with Vitamin C-rich foods to boost iron availability; or using healthy fats like seeds, nuts, or oil to aid absorption of vitamins like carotenes and lycopene.

Deb Bentzel of the Food Trust noted these vitamins were particularly important for the shelter's children and pregnant mothers.

"You can take a critical eye to those menus," she told the cooks, who then applied the concepts in a bean salad with red bell pepper and lemon, and in a spinach salad with mandarin oranges.

Alexandra Ceribelli - a cook whose resumé includes Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia and Barchetta in New York City - said that, although the city's menus had improved, the ingredients provided often didn't match them. When there is fresh produce, "often, it's bad." The kitchen staffers work with nonprofits like Food Not Bombs to bring in better produce, and Davis has started an adopt-a-dinner campaign for donations.

The residents aren't just getting better-quality food, Davis said, they're also getting a say in what's served. A menu committee collects feedback monthly. For its May meeting, a dozen mothers gathered in a basement room to talk food.

"I miss cooking . . . the aromas in the air, everything about it," Latoya Payton said wistfully. "If I could, I'd make fresh macaroni and cheese, greens, fried chicken, and - what do you call that little guy? - Pillsbury biscuits."

(Residents aren't allowed in the kitchen because of liability concerns. But the Food Trust nutrition workshops offer them a chance to prepare snacks. Davis also won a grant to send each family to its new home with a steamer, salad spinner, knives, and a cutting board.)

The women discussed recent meals. Pebbles Freeman said things like lemon on the fish were too much: "Most of the time, the kids don't want to eat it." She buys them fast food three or four times a week. Tracy Peterkin agreed: "When you get fancy, we're not eating it."

Ceribelli has incorporated this input. Now that she has produce sources, she wants to improve meat quality. She asked the women to rate the improvements on a scale of 10. The consensus: Eight.

Davis and Bentzel are trying to gauge interest among other providers in replicating this work. There's momentum, Bentzel said, but Davis added, "It's not everyone's passion. The layers of barriers are really entrenched."

The Office of Supportive Housing, which oversees shelters, has been implementing the guidelines only in family shelters. Adult shelters and soup kitchens run on a patchwork of sources of varying quality. Marie Nahikian, city director of supportive housing, said the city already allocated $4 million a year for food for soup kitchens and shelters, at an average of 33 cents per pound. Complying with the guidelines will mean spending more on food and retraining suppliers and service providers. None of that is in her budget. But, she added, "we are committed to trying to follow those guidelines."

She's working with the Health Department and procurement office to add vendors; Get Healthy Philly, a Health Department initiative, has won a grant to expand Health Promotion Council training and menu analysis to adult shelters.

But improving food also requires infrastructure. Consider My Brother's House, run by the nonprofit Bethesda Project for chronically homeless men. Last year, Larry Russock, who runs it, began trying to improve the food, which was heavy on canned goods from Philabundance and donated casseroles. Quality was a source of tension.

But adding fresh or frozen produce seems impossible: He has no way to pick up donations, no freezer. So he does what he can. He contacted the Drexel Food Lab about dressing up canned green beans (roast them) and soups (add caramelized vegetables). And he started a menu-planning committee. "Residents have access to the planning process. They have access to the budget, so there's a lot more understanding of our limitations."

Mostly, he said, they have a say: "Getting control in what's going on in your life can be a very healing experience."

Two-Bean Salad

Makes 8 to 10 servings

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3 (15.5 ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

2 (15.5 ounce) cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 bunch scallions, trimmed and sliced very thin

1 large red bell pepper, cored and diced fine

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

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1. Combine chickpeas, kidney beans, scallions, and bell peppers in a large bowl, and toss.

2. Whisk together lemon juice and oil. Pour onto salad, and toss well. Stir in parsley.

3. Season with salt and pepper. Chill until serving.

- From chef Vincent Connelly,

kitchen manager,

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School

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Spinach Strawberry Salad

Makes 12 servings

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1 tablespoon strawberry preserve, sugar free

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning mix

1/8 cup balsamic vinegar

1/8 cup water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 pounds raw spinach

3 cups mandarin oranges

3 strawberries sliced

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1. Microwave strawberry preserve until warm and slightly runny. Whisk together preserve, Italian seasoning mix, balsamic vinegar, and oil. (Prepare dressing 1 to 2 days before for maximum flavor.)

2. Wash spinach.

3. Drain mandarin oranges.

4. Wash and slice fresh strawberries.

5. Lightly toss spinach, oranges, and strawberries.

6. Toss salad with dressing just before serving.

- From Ohio Department of Education

Per serving: 85 calories, no cholesterol,

62 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat

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215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed