Wearing chef’s whites, Christopher Ackerman lines up fresh peppers, onions, garlic, herbs and spices on the counter in front of a classroom of children in the South Bronx. At his side is a 2-foot-tall, bubble-eyed frog hand puppet – a coqui, a species native to Puerto Rico – who engages the mostly Hispanic audience on how they can use these ingredients to prepare healthy dishes for their families to enjoy.
Ackerman, a research associate at the Center for Tobacco Studies at Rutgers School of Public Health and an amateur chef, is one of the instructors at “Coqui the Chef,” a nonprofit educational program founded by South Bronx native Tania Lopez. Coqui the Chef teaches urban children how to cook nutritious recipes from inexpensive ingredients found in their neighborhood stores.
Coqui the Chef is an oasis in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls one of the largest urban food deserts – a low-income community with little or no access to inexpensive, healthy food – in the nation.