Free food classes address the life expectancy gap for black and brown Chicagoans

The rhythmic sound of a knife hitting a cutting board and the hum of a mixer filter through the happy chatter and noise of a bustling kitchen in Garfield Park on a warm August afternoon.

Inside the bright white industrial kitchen, five students are learning how small tweaks to their eating habits could help close a life expectancy gap that cuts years, even a decade, off the average life of black and Latinos in Chicago compared to their white counterparts, according to a mayoral report released earlier this year.

Top of the list of reasons for the gap: chronic heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The leading cause of death in Chicago in 2020 was not the coronavirus; it was heart disease, which is more common in black, Latino, and South Asian communities. And while systemic issues like housing racism, poor access to health care, and a lack of fresh food options in large swaths of the city contribute to these health disparities, several Chicago organizations they hope to spark change with free cooking classes that combine food education with cooking. tips that make healthy eating much easier.

“If we start throwing fresh vegetables into these areas of food apartheid, not everything will change,” says Jeannine Wise, co-creator and chef of Good Food is Good Medicine. “What (the studies) found was that teaching (people) how to cook also helped. Because if you don’t know what to do with fresh vegetables because you’ve never had them, then it doesn’t help to have fresh vegetables for no reason.”

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

“These are areas where healthy food options are overwhelmed or swamped by unhealthy options,” says McDonald. “So these same areas that we call food deserts are technically wetlands where there’s a lot of food, it’s just unhealthy food. And these, again, are also majority African-American neighborhoods.”

In class, Janet Yarboi carefully chops fresh garlic. Measure out portions of basil, sunflower seeds and water, mixing them together before squeezing lemon juice over your bright green pesto and giving it another swirl. In place of Parmesan, nutritional yeast adds a cheesy flavor and a crumbly texture component, while keeping the sauce vegan.

Around him, other participants prepare buffalo sauce and creole seasoning without salt. At an adjacent table, participants and an instructor cut okra in half, cut broccoli and season vegetables.

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

“Some of our favorite foods are fried foods. And it’s very appropriate to eat fried foods, because food is pleasure and enjoyment and community, right?” they say. “However, if you eat fried foods as a pattern, you are at risk more likely to suffer from 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 tackles a variety of topics, from the effects of genetically modified foods, to cooking red meat over high heat, and whether gut health issues that are often affected by diet can be similarly passed on to children. to generational trauma.

“There are the genes we’re born with, and then there are things we can do that modify or affect those genes,” he says. “This is what we call passing on epigenetic changes.”

Across the Dan Ryan, the day after the Bud Billiken Parade, Ericka Johnson is preparing walnut-stuffed peppers for a group of a dozen people gathered at the Bronzeville Neighborhood Farm.

Before diving in, Johnson shares his story. Until three years ago, she says, she was a high-achieving alcoholic. He had his own business, a nail salon, but he was always drinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One of the things we do here at the farm is we try to educate the community about ways to shop and eat healthier food options right here in their own neighborhood,” Trice tells attendees.

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

Johnson starts with dessert, whipping up a lemon bar meringue and pouring it over a date, pecan, coconut oil crust she made and froze.

Toss in a salad of arugula, farm-fresh tomatoes, and imitation cheese. Chop the red peppers and season the walnuts, their “meat” in the dish, with cumin, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika, then grind them in a food processor.

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

“It opened her horizons to healthier green foods,” Zaragoza says of the cooking demonstration. “That’s what I like, that it’s attractive to young people and creates a place for them to have a taste.”

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

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

McDonald agrees, saying they need to meet people where they are. The new funding will allow him and a team of researchers to analyze the effectiveness of Good Food is Good Medicine, looking at whether participants’ diets change after the classes end. In the meantime, 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-language class also underway.

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

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For Yarboi, the class was a way for her to meet others in her community and learn how to cook healthy.

“I’ve learned to be creative and make things for myself at home (that are) 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 glad to know she won’t have to.

Build the Bronzeville Community Garden Chef Series: This summer series concludes Wednesday from 4-7pm 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., buildbronzeville.com

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

Does your organization offer free cooking classes or demonstrations? Email [email protected] to be listed.

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