Free food classes address the life expectancy gap of black and brown Chicago residents

Free food classes address the life expectancy gap of black and brown Chicago residents

The rhythmic beat of a knife on a cutting board and the hum of a blender filter during the happy chatter and raucous kitchen noise of Garfield Park on a warm August evening.

Inside a bright white industrial kitchen, five students learn how small tweaks to their eating habits can help close a life expectancy gap that cuts years — even a decade — the average lifespan of black and Latino Chicagoans compared to their white counterparts, according to a report. As reported by the British newspaper The Guardian. To the mayor’s report released earlier this year.

Topping the list of causes of the gap are chronic heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Coronavirus was not the main cause of death in Chicago in 2020. Heart disease, 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 dearth of fresh food options in large areas of the city contribute to these health disparities, many Chicago organizations hope to make a difference through free cooking classes that combine food and cooking education. Tips that make healthy eating a lot easier.

“If we just started dumping fresh veggies in these segregated areas, not everything would change,” says Jenin Wise, co-creator and chef at Good Food is Good Medicine. “What (studies) found is that teaching (people) to cook also helped. Because if you don’t know what to do with fresh vegetables because you haven’t had them before, there is no need to get fresh vegetables for no reason.”

Good Food is Good Medicine launched last year as one of three programs for Good Food Catalyst, formerly FamilyFarmed. In March, she began offering free classes at The Hatchery, a food incubator and test kitchen in Garfield Park. The organizers deliberately wanted to offer lessons in the neighborhoods most affected by food deserts and the red line, says Dr. Ed MacDonald, co-founder of Good Food is Good Medicine and a gastroenterologist at UChicago Medicine.

“These are the areas where healthy food options are swamped or overwhelmed by unhealthy options,” MacDonald says. “So those same areas that we call food deserts are technically food swamps where there’s a lot of food, it’s just unhealthy food. And those, again, are also predominantly African American neighborhoods.”

In class, Janet Yarboy carefully minces fresh garlic. Measure out portions of basil, sunflower seeds, and water, and mix them together before squeezing lemon juice over bright green pesto and give it another swirl. Instead of Parmesan, nutritional yeast adds a cheesy flavor and grated ingredient, while keeping the sauce vegan.

Around her, other participants prepare buffalo sauce and salt-free Creole seasoning. At an adjacent table, participants and the coach cut the okra in half, chop the broccoli, and season the vegetables.

The health topics for today are cardiovascular disease, sodium and diabetes, Wise says, on their/her conscience.

“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 eat fried foods as a pattern, you are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.”

So instead, students learn to roast and bake, then share a meal of grilled chicken wings, salmon, and baked veggies with buffalo sauce or pesto.

As they dine, MacDonald touches on a variety of topics, from the effects of genetically modified foods, to cooking red meat in high heat, and whether gut health issues often influenced by diet can be passed on to children, generational trauma-style.

“There are the genes we are born with, and then there are things we can do to modify or influence those genes,” he says. “We call that transfer of genetic changes.”

Across Dan Ryan, the day after the Bud Billiken Parade, Ericka Johnson prepares walnut-stuffed peppers before a group of about a dozen people gather on their 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 she always drank.

“In 2019, I decided to change, because I knew that if I didn’t, I would see an early death,” Johnson told test spectators. “I felt my body dying.”

For the past three years, Johnson has been boxing and juicing and now eats a plant-based diet.

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

“the correct!” Some respond in the crowd, while others nod in approval.

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

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

“One of the things we do here on the farm is we try to educate the community about ways they can buy and eat healthy food options here in their area,” Trice told the attendees.

Surrounding the group in the garden, at 4156 S. Calumet Ave. Rows of kale, tomatoes, chard and other vegetables that will soon be harvested and sold to community members on weekends.

Johnson begins with dessert, preparing a lemon meringue and pouring it over a crust made of dates, walnuts, and coconut oil she had previously prepared and frozen.

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

Maria Zaragoza is a resident of Bronzeville, and she has volunteered on the farm with her daughter for about a year. She says the cooking shows give her ideas for new healthy foods to cook at home. Her daughter went to a demo with her earlier in the summer and since then she’s been loving basil and other vegetables in her food.

“This kind of opened her horizons for more healthy green foods,” Zaragoza says of the cooking show. “That’s what I love, that it invites young people and creates a place for them to sample.”

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

“Yes, we’ll teach you healthy cooking, but we’ll never say you’re doing something wrong. We’ll never take food from you. We’ll just add,” Wise says. “We eat food for a variety of reasons and many of them are very psychological and emotional.”

MacDonald agrees, saying they should meet people where they are. The new funding will allow him and the team of researchers to analyze the effectiveness of “good food is good medicine,” and look at whether the participants’ diets changed after their classes ended. Meanwhile, Wise is working to expand the program to other Chicago communities, partnering with existing community organizations when possible, in the Englewood and North Lawndale neighborhoods, with a Spanish language class in business as well.

“I thought when we started this program that good food is good medicine is a nutrition education program,” Wise says. “I have now discovered through real-time experience that we are a relationship-based nutritional justice program. I am proud of that because it happened naturally.”

Eat.  Watch.  Do.

Eat. Watch. Do.


what are you going to eat. what do you want to watch. What you need to live your best life…Now.

For Yarboy, the class was a way for her to meet others in her community and learn healthy cooking.

“I’ve learned how to get creative and make things for myself at home (which is) a little healthier but still tastes good,” she says. “Because spice 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.

Bronzeville Community Garden Chef Series Build: This summer series concludes from 4-7 p.m. Wednesday with a presentation and tasting from Chef Erica Durham, who also runs the Culinary Connection at The Bronzeville Incubator. Bronzeville Community Garden, 323 E. 51st St.,

Imagine Englewood if the program was from plant to plate: Monthly vegan cooking classes from a long-term community organization dedicated to the health and wellness of the people of Englewood. Next lesson is on Thursday. Englewood Community Kitchen, 6212 Sangamon Street, 773-488-6704,

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

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