Students Learn Cooking and Culture Through Pilot Light

Second graders at Perkins Bass Elementary School show off the baked chicken and potato salad that Chef Justin Behke, culinary director of Pilot Light, showed them how to make during a cooking demo in November. The cooking event was one of three events Pilot Light sponsored with the help of a $5,000 Acting Up award from The Chicago Community Trust.

By Princess-India Alexander

Against the long tradition of teachers scolding students for eating during class, Pilot Light stands out as the culinary rebel. Through integrating classroom lessons with real-life food experiences, this program teaches students how their relationship to food can also connect them to the world and cultures around them.

“I really love the fact that Pilot Light strives to give students all the skills and knowledge needed to have a healthy relationship with food and to navigate that relationship on their own,” says Pilot Light Community Programs Director Kendra Julion. “So it’s not really telling them ‘you need to eat vegetables.’ It’s giving them all the information so they can make that decision on their own about what their relationship with food should look like.”

Pilot Light uses food to promote effective teaching, improve learning in the classroom and  encourage students to have healthy relationships with food. At their partner schools, they enroll lead teachers in their professional development sessions and work closely with them to create unique lesson plans that teach students where food comes from and the impact food has on their lives and their communities.

Photo Above: Justin Behke, Pilot Light’s culinary director, explains to second-grade students at Bass Elementary School how they can make sophisticated things with simple ingredients that they can grow in a garden.

Photo Above: The second-graders at Bass Elementary School with their goody bags filled with celery, potatoes, onions and other items for making potato salad. Justin Behke, culinary director of Pilot Light, is in the background.

The organization received a $5,000 Acting Up award from The Chicago Community Trust to  further engage students, parents and community members at three of Pilot Light’s partner schools through events focused on cooking, healthy meal assembly and community gardens.

The Trust awarded $150,500 to 37 community projects that benefit neighborhoods and the public good. These ideas were sparked through the Trust’s fifth annual On the Table, where Chicago-area residents came together on May 8 in mealtime conversations to engage in meaningful dialogue, develop new relationships and inspire action to make a difference in their communities.

With their Acting Up award, Pilot Light held cooking demos and community dinners on November 15 at two different schools, Perkins Bass Elementary School in Englewood and UChicago Charter Donoghue Campus (also referred to as Donoghue) in Bronzeville, where they have been teaching about healthy meal preparation and community gardens for two years. They had a third cooking event on November 27 at Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park, where parents and students prepared a Middle Eastern meal together.

Photo Above: Yannick Assignon, fifth grader at UChicago Charter Donoghue Campus, shares information about the history of Bronzeville with his classmates, as part of the school’s “A Taste of Home: Getting to Know Bronzeville through Food, Music, and Stories.” The event was sponsored by Pilot Light with an Acting Up award from the Chicago Community Trust.

Photo Above: Selmon Assignon and his son Yannick take a break from eating during the “A Taste of Home” event at Yannick’s school.

At Bass Elementary School, Pilot Light culinary director Justin Behlke baked chicken and made potato salad. The potato salad was made with produce like celery, potatoes, greens and onions, which should be fully grown in the school’s community garden next by fall. Justin hopes the cooking demo helped the students, who are second graders, form bonds through food.

“I think it’s really powerful. It’s about how food is able to connect us and everyone,” Justin said. “For me, it’s really motivating for food to be a commonality among so many people, and it can mean so much more than eating.”

Pilot Light also hosted “A Taste of Home: Getting to Know Bronzeville through Food, Music, and Stories,” an event at UChicago Charter Donoghue Campus that emphasized Bronzeville history and culture.

During the event, children created and presented a PowerPoint detailing all they learned about Bronzeville’s history to 36 parents and fellow students. The event also included a vegan cooking demo by Disco Pantry founder Khari-B, who prepared vegan mac and cheese and greens. Attendees sampled these vegan options and enjoyed a sit-down dinner catered by Pearl’s Place, a local soul food restaurant.

Parents in attendance recognized the palpable impact these lessons had on their children and their attitudes toward food.

“For me I think it’s the excitement,” said Selom Assignon, parent of a UChicago Charter Donoghue Campus student. “Their excitement of coming home and saying ‘I’ve learned something new!’ You see that glittering eye in them telling you what they’ve learned and I think that’s something that makes me so happy just knowing that.”

Donyale Wallace, fifth grade teacher at Donoghue, said she hopes her students remember the cultural lessons they learned through the Pilot Light lessons.

“Learning about other foods builds compassion for ourselves and others. So when they do become adults and they go out into the world, they are learning about other cultures and they can treat people with compassion,” she said. “And maybe they can change the climate that we’re living in now. That’s what I really hope for and that’s what we’re building.”

Photo Above: Dhe-di Willoughby of Disco Pantry serves Joanie Wright, a parent of a UChicago Charter Donoghue Campus student, a helping of vegan mac and cheese during the school’s “Taste of Home” event.

Photo Above: At UChicago Charter Donoghue Campus’ “A Taste of Home” event are (from left to right): Donyale Wallace, Donoghue Campus teacher; Justin Behke, Pilot Light culinary director; Khari-B, founder of Disco Panty; Dhe-di Willoughby, Disco Pantry chef; Katie Colvin, Pilot Light director of education; and Kendra Julion, Pilot Light community programs director.

Photos by Jason Jones

View Pilot Light’s Acting Up video application: