As life expectancy drops for black and brown Chicagoans, free cooking classes seek to bridge the gap

As life expectancy drops for black and brown Chicagoans, free cooking classes seek to bridge the gap

The rhythmic thump of a knife hitting a cutting board and the roar of a blender filter through the happy chatter and noise of a bustling kitchen in Garfield Park on a warm August evening.

Inside the crisp white industrial kitchen, five college students learn how small changes to their eating habits could help close a life expectancy gap that is slashing years, if not a decade, from the average lifespan. of black and Latino Chicagoans compared to their white counterparts, according to a mayor’s report released earlier this year.

Topping the list of reasons for the gap: chronic heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Chicago’s leading cause of death in 2020 wasn’t the coronavirus; it was a heart condition, which is more prevalent in black, Latino, and South Asian communities. And while systemic issues such as racism in housing, poor access to health care, and a shortage of fresh food options in large swathes of the city contribute to these health disparities, several health organizations Chicago hope to spark change with free cooking classes that combine food education with cooking. tips that make healthy eating much easier.

“If we just start throwing fresh vegetables into these food apartheid zones, not everything is going to change,” says Jeannine Wise, co-creator and executive chef of Good Food is Good Medicine. “What (studies) have found is that teaching (people) to cook has also helped. Because if you don’t know what to do with fresh vegetables because you’ve never had them, that There’s no point in having fresh vegetables for no reason.

Good Food is Good Medicine was launched last year as one of three programs by The Good Food Catalyst, formerly known as FamilyFarmed. In March, he began offering free classes at The Hatchery, a food incubator and test kitchen in Garfield Park. Organizers intentionally wanted to offer classes in neighborhoods most affected by food deserts and redlining, says Dr. Ed McDonald, co-creator of Good Food is Good Medicine and gastroenterologist at UChicago Medicine.

“These are areas where healthy food options are overwhelmed or flooded with unhealthy options,” McDonald says. “So those same areas that we call food deserts are technically food swamps where you have a lot of food, it’s just unhealthy food. And these, again, are majority African-American neighborhoods as well.

In class, Janet Yarboi carefully chops fresh garlic. She measures out portions of basil, sunflower seeds and water, mixes them together before squeezing lemon juice over her bright green pesto and giving it another swirl. Instead of Parmesan, nutritional yeast provides a cheesy flavor and grated texture component, while keeping the sauce vegan.

Around her, other participants prepare Buffalo sauce and Creole seasoning without salt. At an adjacent table, participants and an instructor cut the okra in half, cut the broccoli and season the vegetables.

Today’s health topics are cardiovascular disease, sodium and diabetes, says Wise, whose pronouns are they/she.

“Some of our favorite foods are fried. And it’s very appropriate to eat fried food, because food is about fun, enjoyment and community, isn’t it? ” they say. “However, if you regularly eat fried foods, you are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.”

So instead, the class learns to roast and bake, then shares a meal of roasted chicken wings, baked salmon and vegetables, drizzled with buffalo sauce or pesto.

As they eat, McDonald’s discusses a variety of topics, from the effects of genetically modified foods to cooking red meat over high heat, and whether gut health issues often affected by diet can be passed on to children, such as generational trauma.

“There are the genes we are born with, and then there are the things we can do that change or affect those genes,” he says. “We call this the transmission of epigenetic changes.”

On the other side of the Dan Ryan, the day after the Bud Billiken Parade, Ericka Johnson prepares walnut-stuffed peppers in front of a group of about ten people gathered at the Bronzeville Neighborhood Farm.

Before diving in, Johnson shares her story. Until three years ago, she says, she was a high-functioning alcoholic. She ran her own business – a nail salon – but was still drinking.

“In 2019 I decided to change because I knew if I didn’t I was going to see an untimely death,” Johnson told viewers of the demo. “I felt my body die.”

Over the past three years, Johnson has taken up boxing and juicing and now follows a vegan diet.

“It just speaks to the power of what God has already created for us here,” she says.

“Right!” some in the crowd respond, while others nod in agreement.

The farm started its monthly cooking demonstrations in 2019, after LaNissa Trice, now a member of the farm’s board of directors, first visited as a member of the community and then started volunteering. Farm founder Johnnie Owens, who was shot and killed a year ago in his home, welcomed Trice and was open to his suggestion of hosting chefs showcasing healthy foods using ingredients from the farm.

Although the past year has been tough, continuing to tend to the garden and educate the community has been a way to honor Owens, Trice said, fighting back tears.

“One of the things we do here on the farm is try to educate the community on ways to buy and eat healthier food right here in their own neighborhood,” Trice told attendees.

Surrounding the group in the garden at 4156 S. Calumet Avenue are rows of kale, tomatoes and Swiss chard, and other vegetables that would soon be harvested and sold to community members for the purposes of week.

Johnson starts with dessert, whipping up a lemon meringue and pouring it over a crust made of dates, pecans and coconut oil that she has prepared and frozen.

She mixes up an arugula salad, farm-fresh tomatoes and fake cheese. She divides the red peppers into wedges and seasons the nuts – her “meat” of the dish – with cumin, salt, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika, then grinds them in a food processor .

Maria Zaragoza is a Bronzeville resident who has been volunteering on the farm with her daughter for almost a year. She says the cooking demonstrations give her ideas for new, healthier foods to cook at home. Her daughter went to a demo with her earlier this summer and has since started to like basil and other greens and vegetables in her food.

“It kind of opened up the horizons for her towards healthier green foods,” Zaragoza says of the cooking demonstration. “That’s what I love is that it invites young people in and it creates a place for them to have a taste.”

Johnson and Wise say they never ask people to cut foods from their diets. Instead, they show people alternative foods to add to their rotation.

“Yes, we’ll teach you how to cook healthy, but we’ll never say you’re doing anything wrong. We will never take food from you. We’re just going to add,” Wise says. “We eat food for a variety of reasons and many are deeply psychological and emotional.”

McDonald’s agrees, saying they need to meet people where they are. New funding will allow him and a team of researchers to analyze the effectiveness of Good Food is Good Medicine, examining whether participants’ diets change after their classes end. Meanwhile, Wise is working to expand the program to other Chicago communities, partnering with existing community organizations where possible, in the Englewood and North Lawndale neighborhoods, with a Spanish-taught class also in the works. .

“When we started this program, I thought Good Food is Good Medicine was a nutrition education program,” says Wise. “I have now discovered through real-time experience that we are a relationship-based food justice program. And I’m so proud of that because it happened organically.

To eat.  Look.  Do.

To eat. Look. Do.


What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life…now.

For Yarboi, the course was a way for her to meet other members of her community and learn about healthy cooking.

“I learned to be creative and make things for myself at home (that are) just a little healthier but still taste good,” she says. “Because seasoning is everything to me, and I really can’t sacrifice seasoning.”

With the help of Wise and McDonald’s, she’s happy to know she won’t have to.

Build the Bronzeville Community Garden Chef Series: This summer series concludes Wednesday from 4-7 p.m. with a demonstration and tasting by chef Erika Durham, who also runs the organization’s Culinary Connection program at The Bronzeville Incubator. Bronzeville Community Garden, 323 E. 51st St.,

Imagine Englewood If the Plant-to-Plate program: Monthly plant-based cooking classes from a long-standing community organization dedicated to the health and well-being of Englewood residents. Next class is Thursday. Englewood Community Kitchen, 6212 S. Sangamon St., 773-488-6704,

Does your organization offer free cooking classes or demonstrations? Email to be included in the list.

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