Free food classes address life expectancy gap for Black, brown Chicagoans


The rhythmic thump of a knife striking a cutting board and the whirr of a blender cut through the happy chatter and din of a busy Garfield Park kitchen on a warm August evening.

In the bright white industrial kitchen, five students learn how small changes to their eating habits could help close a life expectancy gap that is shaving years—even a decade—from the average life of black and Hispanic Chicagoans compared to their white counterparts a mayoral report released earlier this year.

High on the list of reasons for the gap: chronic heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The leading cause of death in Chicago in 2020 wasn’t the coronavirus; It was a heart disease more common in Black, Hispanic, and South Asian communities. And while systemic issues like racism in housing, poor access to health care, and a lack of fresh food in much of the city are contributing to these health inequalities, several Chicago organizations are hoping to bring about change with free cooking classes that combine nutrition education with cooking tips, that make eating healthy much easier.

“If we just start throwing fresh vegetables into these food apartheid areas, it’s not going to change everything,” says Jeannine Wise, co-founder and executive chef of Good Food is Good Medicine. “What[studies]found was that it also helped teach[people]how to cook. Because if you don’t know what to do with fresh veggies because you’ve never had them around, then having the fresh veggies for no reason doesn’t help.”

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

“These are areas where healthy food options are being overwhelmed or swamped by unhealthy options,” says McDonald. “The same areas that we call food deserts are technically food swamps where food is plentiful, it’s just junk food. And those, in turn, are mostly African American neighborhoods.”

In class, Janet Yarboi carefully minces fresh garlic. She measures out portions of basil, sunflower seeds, and water and mashes them before squeezing lemon juice over her light green pesto and tossing it again. Instead of Parmesan, nutritional yeast adds a cheesy flavor and grated texture component while keeping the sauce vegan.

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Around them, other participants prepare buffalo sauce and salt-free Creole condiments. At a neighboring table, participants and an instructor will cut okra in half, chop broccoli, and season the vegetables.

The health topics of the day are cardiovascular disease, sodium and diabetes, says Wise, whose pronouns are s/he.

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

Instead, the class learns roasting and baking, then shares a meal of fried chicken wings, baked salmon, and vegetables drizzled with buffalo sauce or pesto.

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

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

Across the Dan Ryan, the day after the Bud Billiken parade, Ericka Johnson prepares walnut-stuffed peppers before a group of about a dozen people gather at Bronzeville Neighborhood Farm.

Before she dives in, Johnson tells her story. Until three years ago, she says, she was a high-functioning alcoholic. She ran her own business – a nail salon – but always drank.

“In 2019, I made a decision to change because I knew that if I didn’t, I would die early,” Johnson tells viewers of the demo. “I felt my body die.”

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In the past three years, Johnson has taken up boxing and juicing, and is now vegan.

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

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

The farm began its monthly cooking demonstrations in 2019 after LaNissa Trice, now a board member of the farm, first visited as a community member and then began volunteering. The farm’s founder, Johnnie Owens, who was fatally shot at his home a year ago, welcomed Trice and was open to her suggestion of hosting chefs who showcase healthy foods made with ingredients from the farm.

Although the past year has been difficult, continuing to care for the garden and educate the community was a way to honor Owens, says Trice, fighting back tears.

“One of the things we’re doing here on the farm is we’re trying to educate the community about how they can buy and eat healthier food options right here in their own neighborhoods,” Trice tells attendees.

Surrounding the group are in the garden at S. Calumet Ave. 4156 rows of kale, tomatoes and Swiss chard and other vegetables that would soon be harvested and sold to parishioners on the weekends.

Johnson begins dessert, preparing a lemon bar meringue and pouring it over a crust of dates, pecans, and coconut oil that she premade and frozen.

She conjures up a salad of rocket, tomatoes fresh from the farm and imitation cheese. She quarters red peppers and seasons walnuts — 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 with her daughter on the farm for almost a year. She says the cooking demos give her ideas for new, healthier foods to cook at home. Her daughter took her to a demo earlier this summer and has since started liking basil and other veggies in her food.

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“It kind of opened up their horizons to healthier green foods,” says Zaragoza of the cooking demo. “I like that it invites the youth and creates a place to try.”

Both Johnson and Wise say they never ask people to eliminate things from their diet. Instead, they show people alternative foods to add to their rotation.

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

McDonald agrees and says they need to meet people where they are. New tools will allow him and a team of researchers to analyze the effectiveness of Good Food is Good Medicine and see if the participants’ diets change after the classes are over. In the meantime, Wise is working to expand the program to other Chicago communities, working where possible with existing community organizations in the Englewood and North Lawndale neighborhoods, with classes taught in Spanish 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 nutritional justice program built on relationships. And I’m so proud of that, because it happened naturally.”

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For Yarboi, the course was a way to meet others in her community and learn about healthy cooking.

“I’ve learned to be creative and to make things at home that are a bit healthier but still taste good,” she says. “Because spices are everything to me and I really can’t live without spices.”

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

Build the Bronzeville Community Garden Chef Series: This summer series concludes Wednesday from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. with a demonstration and tasting by chef Erika Durham, who also leads the organization’s Culinary Connection program at The Bronzeville Incubator. Bronzeville Community Garden, 323 E. 51st St., buildbronzeville.com

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

Does your organization offer free cooking classes or demos? Email [email protected]cagotribune.com to be added to the list.

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