By Alexa Spencer | Word In Black

Credit: Photo courtesy of Black Girls Cook
Credit: Photo courtesy of Black Girls Cook

(WIB) – As a culinary instructor for the Baltimore and Miami-based non-profit Black Girls Cook (BGC), Tellita Crawford, 31, is instrumental in helping the organization fulfill its mission: reduce disease risk for inner-city girls of color.

During the summer months, she runs the cooking program at the organization’s Baltimore location, where girls between the ages of 9 and 16 learn the basics of cooking, nutrition, and healthy living.

By the end of the three-week program, the girls not only learn to cook cultural meals, such as chicken pot pie and spiced pumpkin bread, but also how to make health-conscious decisions.

The chef says the organization gives “an eye-opening [experience] to see that you can still eat healthier, but they can still be good meals as well.”

Tellita “Chef Tee Tee” Crawford [middle] teaches girls in Baltimore basic culinary art as part of Black Girls Cook’s summer program. Photo courtesy of Black Girls Cook

Reducing Diet-Related Health Problems in Black Women

Black Girls Cook was founded in 2014 by Nichole Mooney, who sought to help Black girls establish healthy relationships with food and reduce their chances of developing health issues as adults. 

As a child, Mooney witnessed women in her family struggle with diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity — trends that plague Black communities nationwide. 

Black women are two times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with or die from type 2 diabetes, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Compared to white women, Black women also lead in rates of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. 

Structural racism contributes significantly to these health disparities. Cities like Baltimore and Miami are rife with Black and low-income neighborhoods that lack access to fresh foods.

That’s why BGC calls those places home. And it’s making an impact with its cooking, natural beauty product, and gardening classes.

Participants cook at home more often, increase their science and math skills, and grow in self-confidence and self-esteem. 

Building an Appetite for Optimism in Black Girls

“We have been going over a lot of knife techniques. How to cut different vegetables and fruit in different shapes. They have learned how to peel the fruit,” Crawford says. “We also learned the terms of cooking, like saute, broiling, base, how to boil water, how to make pasta.”

“They learned how to read recipes. They have learned how to read nutrition facts,” says Crawford, affectionately called “Chef Tee Tee” by the girls.

Substitutions are also introduced in the class. Recipes that call for dairy may be modified to contain less or are replaced with vegan options, such as almond milk.

During the final cooking class for a July cohort, the group of girls pulled up their sleeves to bake an African-American delicacy. 

“Has anyone had sweet potato pound cake before,” Crawford asked the room. 

In her black chef’s apron, she walked around the table of girls, guiding them through a history lesson on sweet potatoes before diving into the recipe.

BGC participants learn to cook a variety of foods, from winter soups to baked desserts. Photo courtesy of Black Girls Cook

“In the United States, the terms ‘yam’ and ‘sweet potato’ are used interchangeably, but they are completely different vegetables,” Crawford read.

Shortly after, the chef tasked the girls with items to retrieve from the pantry.

“Go get two sticks of butter,” she told one of them. 

While the dish wasn’t a zero-calorie, zero-fat cake, that wasn’t the goal either. The plan was to make just enough to learn the recipe and taste in moderation. 

“We’re just making a simple pan,” Crawford said. 

The girls scurried in and out of the room with ingredients before transitioning to the kitchen to bake their final dish of the summer. 

Crawford’s goal during her weeks with them was to build their culinary skills, but also to impart confidence and joy, even amid life’s trials. 

A formerly unhoused mother who launched her culinary arts career while living in transitional housing, she knows all about being open-minded. 

“I want the girls to know, sometimes you may not even know what direction you plan on going. But sometimes, things work out in your favor. God ends up putting you in the right place at the right time,” she said. 

“Just always be open-minded. You never know, you may be a chef one day.”