Seeds of Success–When they cook and grow
Chef Mona Jackson may not own a restaurant, have a show on The Food Network, or be the winner of a cooking competition, but to Bridgeport-area youth, she is a pretty big deal. Don’t let her quiet demeanor and easy-going manner fool you—this woman is a force, and she’s changing the way kids look at health and nutrition through food.
While growing up in Norwalk and Bridgeport, Jackson worked alongside her father in his catering business, but later became a paralegal. “I always loved to cook,” she explains, so after years of working in law offices, decided to go to culinary school at what she describes as an “older” age. “I wanted to learn the proper techniques,” she says. After completing the program and an internship at the now-shuttered Flying Dish restaurant in Fairfield, she was hired on as the chef. “I did that for many years, but I was bored,” she explains, “so I left.”
However, never one to sit idle, Chef Mona had several ideas brewing for the next phase of her career. “I noticed that kids seemed so out-of-sorts in terms of their weight and activities,” she says. “Too many health issues—diabetes, high blood pressure, plus low self-esteem.” Inspired by then First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, which focused on reducing childhood obesity through good nutrition and physical activity, Jackson created the not-for-profit organization Cook and Grow.
The Cook and Grow Junior Chefs program began in 2009 as a six-week summer program for kids ages eight to 13, and operated out of the basement break room in the Black Rock Public Library. “It had a stove, a fridge, a sink, and, of course kids!” she says. The first order of business was to plant a garden adjacent to the library with seedlings donated by Gilbertie’s Nursery. “The kids need to know where food comes from,” she explains. That first year, eight students learned to maintain the garden, harvest its produce, and prepare healthy dishes using what they grew. “I taught them recipes, how to measure, how to shop and read labels,” Chef Mona says. “I wanted them to learn how to eat healthy, and to learn that they do have a choice in what they eat.”
By 2015, it was time to find a new, larger facility for the successful program. Jackson already had her eye on space on the ground floor of her apartment building, Read’s Artspace in Bridgeport. Artspace is a mixed-use building for artists, who must apply and be accepted to become residents. In addition to apartments, Artspace houses a gallery, and at one point it was also home to a deli. The former deli was a huge, bright space with floor to ceiling windows facing onto Broad Street, and Chef Mona knew would be the perfect spot for Cook and Grow, which she wanted to expand to include adult groups and “date night” classes for couples. However, in order to realize her vision, Chef Mona knew there was quite a bit of work to be done.
One evening in the building’s gallery, she met the manager of the Milford Lowe’s, who was so impressed with her idea, he agreed to donate all the paint, rollers, and brushes necessary to give the space a complete overhaul. Chef Mona invited all the building’s residents for a “painting party” where everyone would be put to work while they ate, drank, and socialized with their neighbors. “I’m the only chef in the building,” she says, “so I cooked, and they painted.” Now all they needed was equipment. “The prior tenant left a freezer, and there was an old soda refrigerator,” she says, “but that was it.” She purchased long, stainless steel prep tables and propane cooking burners, and she was ready to open the doors to a new group of Junior Chefs.
In 2018, the Junior Chefs program caught the eye of the Justice Education Center in Hartford, which approached Jackson about starting a high-school culinary program in conjunction with Bridgeport’s Bassick High School. They also offered to purchase supplies for the program, including a commercial refrigerator and stoves. The Bassick program ran for two years, but was eliminated in January 2020 due to state budget cuts.
Currently, the Cook and Grow is in its eleventh year. In addition to the summer and after-school programs for kids, Chef Mona hosts team-building events, private cooking parties, and adult classes. There’s only one thing she does not do: dishes. “The kids have to learn how to do that,” she says with a laugh.
The Food Is Art benefit auction will be held this fall at Lincoln Technical School in Shelton, and will feature celebrity chefs including Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave and Chris Scott, founder of Birdman Juke Joint and “Chopped!” fame. The event raises money to support the Junior Chefs program and to provide need-based scholarships to students wishing to enroll in the summer and after-school programs. “I’m the only type of program like this in Bridgeport,” Chef Mona explains. “I have to keep going.” cookandgrow.org