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Cooked: Survival by Zip Code

View on The Global Environmental Justice site

Cooked: Survival by Zip Code (54:00) 2019

Rajashree Ghosh

Affiliated Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University

Teacher's Guide
Please download the teacher's guide for maps, background information, suggested subjects, questions and activities.

Why I selected this film
Throughout the film Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, filmmaker Judith Helfand argues that there is an inextricable connection between environmental injustice and racism as she explores the impact of the 1995 Chicago heat wave that caused hundreds of deaths. The people most affected, she finds, often live in zip codes that are underserved, under-resourced, and ill equipped to deal with extreme events like heat waves, hurricanes, forest fires, and, more recently, pandemics. An examination of these disasters reveals structural inequalities that make poor communities and communities of color vulnerable to these events. The film is an important teaching tool and will promote critical classroom discussions about how social location, privilege, and disadvantage intersect to create very different impacts and experiences within society.


Cooked: Survival by Zip Code is a story about a severe example of environmental injustice. 739 citizens of Chicago died in a heat wave in a single week, most of them poor, elderly, and African American.  The film questions existing policy as it explores a slow-motion disaster that continues to disrupt and shorten the lives of Chicago residents in neighborhoods like Englewood, a district ravaged by pernicious poverty, social isolation, and racism. This is a place where one resident says, “It’s easier to buy a gun than a tomato.” One epidemiologist concludes that 3,200 people die each year from preventable illnesses in such Chicago neighborhoods. The filmmaker comes to question policies that ignore these kinds of ongoing disasters while preparing, at the same time and at great expense, for rare events like earthquakes.

The film does find reason to hope for change because of two community-based initiatives that address current inequities. Sinai Urban Health Institute actively reaches out to residents, and an organic farm that grows vegetables for residents of Englewood calls itself a “human emergency plan.”

Cooked raises key questions: Can we realign our social priorities? Can we expand the definition of “disaster” to include socially patterned deprivation? Would doing so allow us to address the slow-motion disasters that kill people every day just because they live in the wrong zip code?


The film was inspired by Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, which examines the July 1995 heat wave. Klinenberg and filmmaker Judith Helfand both make the case for environmental health equity as they point out the damage to communities inflicted by racially restrictive covenants, redlining by banks, a lack of safety, exclusion from political engagement in land-use planning, and inadequate health care, all of which contribute to a slow-motion environmental and social disaster created by humans and driven by systemic racism.

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