Judith Dunbar Hines made a salad with home-made dressing and locally grown produce with kids from the McCormick Boys and Girls Club in Chicago on June 27, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: August 2, 2012 6:10AM
Fourth of July celebrations are always colorful. Foods and decorations in the red-white-and-blue colors of the flag dominate tables all over the country on this date.
My pre-holiday celebration, however, features green! But let me explain why.
I visited Uptown to check out a very unique garden at the McCormick Boys and Girls Club. Built three years ago with the assistance of Les Dames d’Escoffier (an organization of women prominent in the food, beverage and hospitality industries) this garden is a very special place for the more than 200 children who visit the Club daily for after-school and summer programs designed to give them a safe and welcoming place of their own where they can learn and grow.
At least 75 of those children actively participate in the garden by helping to plant, weed and harvest the spinach, lettuce, radishes, sweet peas and peppers.
Members of Les Dames visit monthly all year-round to supervise garden work but also to teach lessons in adventurous new tastes, basic cooking with what they’ve grown, and how to appreciate the foods of the many cultures represented in the group of enthusiastic children.
On any given week, kids with ancestors in a dozen countries cluster around the planters for lessons in gardening, healthy eating, and perhaps most of all in appreciating their differences. Food is the perfect way to teach these lessons, as the Dames have learned through their interactions.
Dame Mary Abbott Hess, who created the collaboration between Les Dames and the McCormick Club, says, “Healthful eating and cooking are life skills that too many children and adults do not have. It is exciting to see their joy and pride in whatever they plant, harvest and cook — Swiss chard, many varieties of lettuce and spinach, tomatoes, beans, herbs. These adventures in taste create learning experiences while having lots of fun.”
Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago save lives every day in Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods, serving more than 10,000 at-risk youth annually. The 16 Chicago Clubs provide young people ages 6-18 a stable, safe, and stimulating environment — a place where they receive the tools they will need to reach their full potential as leaders and productive individuals of strong character.
According to program director Mitch Day, “This partnership with les Dames perfectly aligns with the Boys & Girls Clubs’ commitment to teaching its members health and life skills. This program provides McCormick members with countless opportunities and experiences they would not otherwise have, and of course the youth are enthusiastic about anything relating to food.”
And that enthusiasm was well-demonstrated by the six youngsters who gave me a tour of their garden, then eagerly helped me pick and wash greens, and toss them with a simple dressing they made right in the garden. “ I like the radishes best” said one, while another declared, “I don’t like cooked (peas) but I like these ... they are so crunchy and they taste sweet.”
Uptown is a very diverse place with people of many countries coming together in Chicago, all hoping for a better life. While you celebrate the red-white-and-blue representing freedom and advantages of living in the United States this week, also think of the hope that may be the most important ingredient in this simple bowl of salad growing in a multi-ethnic urban neighborhood.
Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago.