NORTH LAWNDALE — The waiting area of Sinai Community Institute was nearly empty on a recent midweek morning. Outside, 2-foot-high snowdrifts blanketed Ogden Avenue.
Mamie Thomas sat with her coat and hat on, staring at a TV blaring in one corner. Three other women did the same. They were here to pick up their batch of coupons allotted to them by the federal Women, Infants and Children food assistance program.
First, they had to sit through a mandatory nutrition session. Her voice drowned out by the TV, dietitian Helen Chukwu advised them on healthy snacks and exercise. Dancing with the kids does count, she said, smiling. She then led them past the office area and into a kitchen where a beefy man in chef whites waited, the toasty aroma of warm, fried wontons thick in the air.
"I will make this as short and painless as possible," said the chef, Levatino Harris, rubbing his palms together like a magician. "We do a cooking class in this kitchen. Nowhere else will you find this program."
Janet Fuller explains how the class got started:
The WIC Culinary Program at Sinai, now in its third year, is the first and only one of its kind in the nation. Other WIC sites offer occasional classes, but this is the only year-round cooking program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Harris' job, aside from teaching the class, is to get women at the Sinai WIC to sign up. That's half the battle. This half-hour with them, when he can demonstrate a quick recipe and ply them with samples, is his hard sell.
As he filled and folded wonton wrappers (with ground turkey, not pork), he told them the class is free and open to them, their significant others, even their friends. He also mentioned, more than once, that dessert is part of every class.
The half-hour passed quickly. They were free to leave, but not before Harris told them to help themselves to the wontons, which they did, shyly, and to sign up. Mamie Thomas did. One, Harris said, is better than none.
A grant to get going
A culinary program for WIC clients had been on Steve Foley's wish list for years. Foley, Sinai Community Institute's director of family services, is a registered dietitian and a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. He knows the good that hands-on, healthy cooking classes can do for a community with so many strikes against it, but he is cognizant of the challenges.
North Lawndale is a food desert with one of the highest rates of diabetes in Chicago. Forty-three percent of households fall below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census data. The 18 percent unemployment rate is triple the city average.
The pregnant women and new moms who come to the WIC center are poor by federal standards and mostly unemployed. Typically, they take a bus or two to get there, often with babies and unwieldy strollers in tow.
"You're talking about 18- to-25-year-old African-American women who don't know how to cook at all. Their main options are fast food," said Foley.
There also are self-imposed hurdles, said Foley, who is black.
"Typically, with African-Americans, we're stuck on staple foods. We're not open to trying new things. Say you're used to eating collard greens. You're not about to try kale," he said.
In 2011, Foley secured an $80,000 USDA grant to renovate and outfit the existing kitchen, half of which had been used for a breastfeeding class.
Foley needed someone with "a fun-loving personality, someone who really loved cooking" to run the program. He found it in Harris, 39, a fellow Le Cordon Bleu graduate.
Harris has worked at the Berghoff, in hospital food service and as a personal chef. He even left the kitchen briefly for a steady but ultimately unfulfilling job as a building engineer.
Growing up in Morgan Park, and as a teen, in the notorious K-Town section of North Lawndale, Harris said he can't remember a time when his mom wasn't on welfare.
"She did her best to make sure we ate every day," Harris said. "We didn't have a lot of fresh stuff. We even had powdered milk. To this day, I can't believe we used to drink that stuff. But when you're hungry, those things didn't matter."
Some days, it was rice and Spam for dinner, or mashed potatoes from a box, or canned pork and beans — the same foods Harris now steers his students away from.
"Nine times out of 10, they say, 'I love green beans in a can.' I say 'Buy the frozen ones. They're picked fresh, at the right moment,'" he said.
The culinary program got underway in the fall of 2012 at the Sinai Community Institute, 2653 W. Ogden Ave.
Classes run in four-week sessions, every Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — on paper anyway. Late starts and no-shows are common.
The kitchen looks cook-off ready, with stainless steel work tables, hanging pot racks and eight shiny black GE stoves lining one wall. The stoves aren't professional-grade; you'd find the same model in a home kitchen.
Same goes for the food. Harris buys ingredients for class at a Jewel in the South Loop. He uses only those foods on the WIC-authorized list.
He goes over food safety and sanitation basics during the first session.
"No nail polish. No hair hanging down. Hands clean. If you touch your pants because you feel your phone vibrating, go wash your hands," he said.
After that, it's a matter of showing, not telling. Harris uses recipes he finds online and tweaks to be healthier. He preps ingredients, shows the students each step along the way, and off they go. They leave with full bellies, containers of leftovers and recipes for dishes as varied as blueberry oatmeal, sauteed cod with spinach and chicken marsala.
In a really good week, there might be six students. On a Friday in late January, there was only Josette Hardy, 43, a mother of three and grandmother of three. Class is a way for her to "get out the house," she said.
But Harris said she was downplaying her interest.
"I had a voicemail from her every day for two weeks leading up to the start," he said.
Hardy said she cooks at home and uses healthy techniques such as baking, not frying, meat, because of her high blood pressure.
Stirring chopped basil and oregano into a sauce for chicken lasagna, that day's entree, she acknowledged, "I don't use [herbs]. I need to start."
Fresh herbs or a squeeze of citrus instead of dried spice mixes, kosher salt instead of table salt — these are the little changes Harris urges his students to make, because then they lead to bigger ones.
He tells of one woman who kept coming to class, even after having her baby and moving out of the neighborhood, all the way to south suburban Matteson. And another, Tawanda Stange, who was pregnant when she started the class in 2013 and returned after giving birth.
"I love Chef," said Stange, 40, a former elementary schoolteacher. "He knows how to let you fly. Once you know how to do things, he delegates and helps build you up."
Stange stopped coming to class because in January, she starting working part-time as a breastfeeding peer counselor at Rush Hospital. She has a side gig, too: Ms. B's Comfort Cuisine, her new catering business.
She will find out in March if she still qualifies for WIC benefits. She might not. Then again, she said, "At this point, I think I'll be OK."
Expanding the scope
The initial USDA grant covered the purchase of video equipment and software. The idea is to make and post videos of the classes online for other WIC sites to access, and ultimately, to replicate the program in other cities, Foley said.
He is considering opening the classes at Sinai to the general public. The kitchen can be and is rented by outside groups for classes and events.
There are untapped research opportunities that could also help expand the program — for example, tracking and evaluating the health outcomes of women who take the classes to see if they fare better than those who don't, Foley said.
Harris plans to turn the recipes he's collected into a cookbook and organize a "Taste of WIC" event in the fall that would feature local chefs. He's aiming for big-name ones like Art Smith.
Harris doesn't ask the women who express an interest in the class at each Wednesday preview for anything more than their name on a clipboard.
Even with their signatures, even after going down the list and calling each one before the first class to see if indeed they still want to come, he knows they might not actually show up.
Thomas, the woman who signed up at a recent demo, had heard about the class when she was pregnant with her now 2-year-old son. She has a 14-year-old as well.
Thomas, 32, lives a bus ride away, in Englewood. She said she needs the class. She doesn't cook at all. Her kids eat junk food, she said.
"Me, too. It's terrible. I guess it's because of me," she said.
Last Friday, the day of her first class, she didn't show up. Harris still had to cook. He made egg fu yung, shrimp fried rice and almond cookies. Staff members down the hall, who have a habit of constantly peeking into the kitchen, ate well that day.
Harris took a break to call Thomas from the kitchen phone.
"Hey, I was looking for you today. You OK?" he said.
She told him the doctor had moved up an appointment for her son to that morning, and asked if she could still come the following week.
"Every Friday, like clockwork," Harris said. "I'll be looking for you."
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