Chi Town Chefs

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]

About two and a half years ago, Cooperative Image Group (Co-op Image) was working out of their first art center, a two car garage sized space in Humboldt Park, across the alley from Carmen Arroyo’s (El Coqui) garden and around the corner from Campbell Gardens. The space would oftentimes fill up with more than 20 youth spilling into the adjacent yard, making it nearly impossible to run any type of arts programming out of the space. To facilitate these numbers Co-op Image began to use the Campbell Garden to host outdoor art classes. Co-op Image has recently acquired this land in trust from the city with the help of Wilma Paiz who founded the garden 15 years earlier, Alderman Billy Occasio, the city’s Open Space commission and Neighborspace. They have since moved to their “Corner Art Center” and become involv-ed with a network of Humboldt and West Humboldt Park gardens as well as partnered with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation on an “Our Block Community Farm” project that has developed into a commercial urban farm. Co-op Image also host a variety of structured studio and applied arts programs with youth between the ages of eight and twenty-one.

Most recently, Co-op Image has initiated a video project called Chi-Town Chefs that utilizes food from their gardens in the taping of youth-hosted and produced cooking shows to be broadcast on public access television and online. Mike Bancroft, the director of Co-op Image, recently spoke with AREA about this new project.

Tell us about this new food and media project that has Co-op Image making cooking shows.

Chi-Town Chefs connects and documents urban agriculture, the politics of healthy eating, and culinary-arts certification through a weekly cooking show. Youth cultivate a variety of produce in Co-op Image’s community gardens while producing their cooking show set for broadcast through FiTV’s Media Burn, CAN-TV, and Portland Community Media. The program takes place in three ten-week cycles that address Nutrition, Media, Neighborhood Change, Cooking, and Community Building. The cooking show teaches youth industry-standard video production techniques and serves the community with culturally-relevant information about food, preparation, nutrition, and sustainable urban agriculture. The curriculum is centered on youth involvement with community health. The program engages youth directly with a long tradition of community gardening in Humboldt Park, sharing healthy cooking, culinary heritage, and good food to those in need. Chi-Town Chefs utilizes multimedia as a tool to engage and contribute to the community. The program is a unique model because of the highly collaborative approach and level of community engagement required in every stage of production. As both educational curriculum and video document, Chi-Town Chefs provides a structure for building community and improving public health that can be easily implemented in any other community structure.

While doing urban agriculture and a youth cooking TV show, what observations have you made about young peoples’ reaction to food that is not packaged or produced by corporations? Since that is the primary source of most food young people interact with, we thought you might have some anecdotes or observations about their actual experience of interacting with food grown in their community.

Initial responses to unprocessed, non-slickly packaged food is what you would expect from anyone in the city or otherwise—I mean I would rather eat a cheaper bag of flamin’ hot somthins than a bag of organic free range bird seeded barley gruel in a sack and that’s why so many people in the city are morbidly obese. The issue is that people don’t necessarily have access to healthy food that is convenient, good, and not cost-prohibitive. The only way to curb this discrepancy besides banishing race and fiscal inequality is to provide food alternatives that are affordable, tasty, and not entirely alien. This could best be summarized by one of the episodes of Chi-Town Chefs, when we cooked tacos with our visiting chef, Adrian Paniagua. The youth produce, direct, and edit the show and who doesn’t like tacos? So the crew decided to focus on the historical taco, a pre-Columbian version of the now American staple. Adrian began to dissect what the youth believed to be Mexican food as we knew it and to list ingredients that they believed were in the taco of their minds. Turns out most of us on the set—myself included—had no idea what an authentic taco was. The cilantro came by way of Asia, the Chocolate for the Mole came from Europe and its uses were reinvented by the Aztecs. There were stories behind the food that brought a context to what we were eating or about to eat which included an amazing jamaica flower mole over roasted chicken and a delicious jicama salsa (not to be confused with Jamaica). As the project progressed, we witnessed some the seeds turn to produce and end up on well-lit studio tables for the cooking show. There was a sense of pride (reluctant of course) in the herbs and vegetables that grew as a result of their labor. Ingredients that in the start were effaced with “eeiw”s and “you nasty”s became part of our cooking vocabulary—one that offers alternatives to the pre-packaged, preserved foods that seem so easy.

If you could imagine an alternative food system (for Chicago or for your community), how would it operate and how would it be different from the current food system?

The answer to curbing the epidemic issue of obesity is to address this disconnect with where our food comes from. Not just the history book story of ingredients but where and how that ultra-ripe strawberry got to your dinner table in the dead of a Chicago winter and why its delivery from Guam had to be subsidized by a government that could just as easily vest its energy into sustainable “local” options. To begin to ask these questions early and to realize that the solution is a lot closer to home than we think, is what programs like these offer to the youth directly involved and the audience of the Chi-Town Chefs program.


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