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COOKED: Survival by Zip Code
COOKED: Survival by Zip Code

The feature documentary COOKED: Survival by Zip Code, a searing exploration into the politics of “disaster,” blends investigative reporting about the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave with a potent argument that the best preparation for a disaster may start with investing in racial and economic justice.

COOKED: Survival by Zip Code will have its national television debut on the PBS television series Independent Lens on Monday, February 3 at 10:00 pm (check local listings), preceding coverage of the Iowa Caucuses. The film will also be available to stream at and on the free PBS Video App throughout Black History Month.

Twenty-five years after the 1995 Chicago heat wave, COOKED: Survival by Zip Code examines the events that led to the deaths of 739 people, mostly Black and in the poorest neighborhoods of the city. The film arrives at a time of growing calls across the country to declare racism a public health crisis and to reinvest in communities ravaged by the long-term impact of structural racism. A recent NYU study found life expectancy differentials as wide as 20-30 years linked to racial and ethnic segregation between neighborhoods in American cities.

Adapted from Eric Klinenberg’s ground-breaking book ‘HEAT WAVE: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,’ the film is directed and produced by Peabody Award-winning director Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl, A Healthy Baby Girl, Everything’s Cool), produced by Fenell Doremus (co-producer of Academy Award-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail), and Kartemquin Films, the award-winning Chicago documentary production house behind Minding the Gap and Hoop Dreams.

In Helfand’s signature serious-yet-quirky connect-the-dots style, COOKED: Survival by Zip Code takes audiences into the deadly 1995 Chicago heat disaster, ties it back to the underlying manmade disaster of systemic structural racism and then goes deep into one of our nation’s biggest growth industries: Disaster Preparedness.

With her own unique combination of chutzpah, humor, and frank candor, Helfand asks open-hearted, open-ended questions that push people to deeply consider what it might mean to redefine “disaster” and question the terms that have become ubiquitous in policy discussions, such as “resilience.” She forges critical connections between the unprecedented cataclysmic natural disasters we’re willing to see and prepare for, and the everyday, constantly churning, slow-motion disasters we’re not – that is, until an extreme weather event hits and they are made exponentially more visible and deadly.

Helfand ingratiates herself into the world of disaster preparedness trainings and drills at the national, regional, and local levels. Along the way she forges inextricable links between extreme weather, extreme wealth disparity, extreme structural racism and the politics of “disaster.” Whether it’s a deadly heat wave in Chicago, Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey or Maria, or massive wildfires in the West, these disasters reveal the ways in which class, race, and zip code predetermine who lives and dies every day regardless of the weather, who gets hurt the worst and first in the wake of an “official disaster,” which communities recover and rebuild and which simply don’t.

In COOKED, Helfand challenges herself, and ultimately all of us, to respond to the man-made disasters taking place in towns and cities across the country before the next unprecedented “natural” disaster hits.

Cooked: Survival By Zip Code – Trailer
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