BCAI Event Highlights Latin, Indian, Hip-Hop Cultures

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MixFuzeEvolveFamily, a BCAI School of Arts fundraiser, will offer a "culturally infused" celebration of Latin, Indian, and hip-hop influences as well as a variety of culinary treats.

The April 14 event, 3-6 p.m. at the Hansen Student Center, 300 East Beecher Street, Bloomington, will feature live music and stage entertainment, raffles, and 12 Indian and Latin dishes on a sampling basis.

Admission includes $10 entry (Ages 6 and up); $6 for a small meal ticket (up to 5 food samples);
$10 large meal ticket (up to 10 samples); and $25 VIP admission (includes entry, a sample of every dish, front row seat reservation for stage events, and one free raffle ticket).

Children under 6 years old enter for FREE, but they must have either a large meal or small meal ticket.

The event is sponsored by State Farm, Not in our Town: Bloomington-Normal, and Willie Brown.

For more info, visit the event website at

Chef Sees Cultural Education as Part of the Job


Frequently, the way to cultural understanding is through our stomachs. Breaking bread with strangers often breaks down barriers -- it’s often harder to hate if you just ate.

Jake Bolender, a Twin Cities native and head chef at Bloomington’s Reality Bites, sees culinary cultural education as “part of our jobs as chefs.” The downtown tapas restaurant and bar offers a daily sprinkling of global fare, and Bolender’s crew will create an international spread for BCAI School of Arts’ Nov. 4 Mix.Fuze.Evolve 2 fundraiser, co-sponsored by Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal’s Not In Our Schools.

“From what I’ve experienced, I think we’re lacking in terms of being familiar with different cultures, especially when it comes to food,” Bolender suggests. “I think people are afraid to try new things. They’re afraid of new things, different cultures, whether it be food or introducing themselves to people or going to an Asian grocery store. I think change is scary for a lot of people.”

Mix.Fuze.Evolve will showcase culturally-infused live stage entertainment and music with a dance floor, a “culturally diverse” cash bar with 14 alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, a Coffeehound coffee bar highlighting blends from various cultures, and 12 culinary meals from six different cultures. The event, from 7 to 10 p.m., will include multiple raffles, with profits funding BCAI-supported scholarships.

Tickets are $55 per person 21 or older, or $60 at the door. Tickets are available at Reality Bites, Coffeehound, or Signature India, or online at In conjunction with the event, BCAI is holding a youth event for every age, infant to teenager, from 5:30 to 11 p.m. at Illinois Wesleyan University, free for MFE2 ticketholders. Non-MFE parents also are welcome to register youth at a $25 per-child cost.

The Saturday menu includes akara & rice, ata dindin, tikka masala chicken, garbanzo & potato curry, black beans & rice, tacos, berry pudding, baked pumpkin, hummus, lamb & toasted nuts, ayam goreng, pork & vegetables spring rolls, baklava, fried thai bananas, and tres leches cake. That may seem like a headscratcher to some meat-and-potatoes Midwesterners, but Bolender emphasizes that “just because (dishes) come from a different culture doesn’t mean all people can’t enjoy them.”

BCAI Director Angelique Racki supplied a list of the Indian, African, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous American cuisines to be represented at the fundraiser. “Then, we just started doing our homework, digging in to different dishes from those cultures – some of which we were familiar with, some of which we were not,” Bolender relates. “It was really fun for us to kind of dig into some things we hadn’t cooked before – even recipes we hadn’t tried before. We were really excited about it. We wanted to be authentic. We wanted these dishes to be prepared in the way they’re traditionally prepared.”

His restaurant had offered a few of the dishes on the Nov. 4 menu on weekends, and he suggests some of the “big hits” among the new creations will make it onto his team’s new November menu. Bolender, his sous-chef Amy Deranian, and other crew members have their own cultural specialties, from Asian to traditional French.

“Mom did a lot of cooking growing up,” and Bolender was raised on a sturdy Heartland diet of chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, kielbasa sausage, mac-and-cheese, and Sunday pot roast. He began bussing tables at 15, and “immediately fell in love with the restaurant industry.” Bolender, now 31, graduated to “the front of the house” and, eight years ago, into the kitchen. His pre-Reality Bites credits included prepping sushi and pizza and learning from nationally respected chefs at the former Station 220 (now Epiphany Farms) and helping launch Bloomington’s Two Blokes And A Bus food truck.

Bolender’s own favorite international dish is “straight-up tacos,” preferably with lengua (tongue), chorizo sausage, or tripa (small intestines). Reality Bite’s MFE2 spread will include a full taco bar featuring a range of toppings and sauces.

Reality Bites’ servers are trained to help diners understand new and potentially daunting dishes. In a few cases, Bolender has made accommodations for the uninitiated: He promotes ayam goreng, a curry-marinated poultry dish, as Indonesian fried chicken.

“Most people like fried chicken,” he smiles. “Most of the times, it’s a matter of stepping outside the boundaries when it comes to food – trying something you haven’t tried before.”

Nov. 4 Fundraiser Features International Menu, Night of Entertainment

Bloomington’s Breaking Chains Advancing Increase (BCAI) School of Arts is offering a Twin Cities fall date night quite unlike any other: An evening of music and dance with an international menu, a multicultural bar, and a safe and creative place to leave the kids.

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BCAI’s Mix.Fuze.Evolve 2 (MFE2) fundraiser is from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at Reality on Monroe, 111 E. Monroe St. in Bloomington. Mix.Fuze.Evolve celebrates BCAI’s thesis that “experiences fuel creativity & fuse into ideas. Ideas unify & bring positive progression.”

The event will showcase culturally-infused live stage entertainment and music with a dance floor, a “culturally diverse” cash bar with 14 alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, a Coffeehound coffee bar highlighting blends from various cultures, and 12 culinary meals from six different cultures.

The event will include multiple raffles. Profits from the event will fund BCAI-supported scholarships.

In conjunction with the event, BCAI is holding a youth event for every age, infant to teenager, from 5:30 to 11 p.m. that night at Illinois Wesleyan University. The program is free for MFE2 ticketholders, but non-MFE parents also are welcome to register youth at a $25 per-child cost.

“We’re giving you five hours of free, constructive child care,” BCAI Director Angelique Racki added. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Tickets are $55 per person 21 or older. Tickets are available at Reality Bites, Coffeehound, or Signature India, or online at

BCAI provides an expression platform and arts education to everyone, regardless of income or background. Racki noted “we’re doing huge things at BCAI,” but although youth has always been a special focus, she stressed “BCAI’s vision is to education all generations.”

Guests at the Nov. 4 event will have the opportunity to submit positive “affirmations” for BCAI students and post “I am” statements that express their dreams, talents, and goals.

Entertainment will include performances by BCAI’s fall Indian and African dance classes. Bloomington’s Reality Bites restaurant plans an international menu for the evening, including:

•Akara & Rice

•Ata DinDin

•Tikka Masala Chicken

•Garbanzo & Potato Curry

•Black Beans & Rice

•A taco bar with an assortment of toppings and salsas

•Berry Pudding

•Baked Pumpkin


•Lamb & Toasted Nuts

•Ayam Goreng

•Pork & Vegetables Spring rolls


•Fried Thai Bananas

•Tres Leches Cake

•An assortment of globally inspired candy and treats

The event is co-sponsored by Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal.

The Citiesscape Pt. 2: 'Desert' Life Unhealthy for Twin Citians?

Is West/Southwest Bloomington a “desert,” where lower-income residents and students especially may be virtually stranded far from healthy foods and drawn to retail “oases” that may foster serious or even lethal health risks?

According to a recently released NIOTBN-sponsored study by Illinois State University students and ISU’s Stevenson Center, the West Side exhibits disturbing desert-like conditions.    

The “disparities in access to healthy food correlates with many social factors,” including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and income level,” concludes “A Community Report on Intolerance, Segregation, Accessibility, Inclusion, Progress, and Improvement.” A diet of “primarily unhealthy products” — including junk food, tobacco and liquor products, and fast food — can cause cardiovascular disease, liver cirrhosis, obesity, and multiple forms of cancer.

In mapping the Twin Cities, the ISU team quickly realized that Bloomington-Normal possesses many more convenience stores than grocery stores. Convenience stores stay open long hours, offering a small variety of household goods and “unhealthy” foods. With high convenience store accessibility and lower grocery store accessibility comes the tendency to rely on unhealthier convenience store options rather than the relatively healthier grocery store offerings, the study asserted.

Further, the majority of Bloomington-Normal's supermarkets and grocery stores are located along major roads, with Veterans Parkway, Market Street, and Main Street possessing the clear majority of store locations. On the map below, The areas shaded green are within one mile of a grocery store; unshaded areas are more than one mile from a grocery. The green and red dots indicate disadvantaged persons.

Additionally, layering the fast food/convenience store/grocery store locations over the map’s U.S. Supermarket Accessibility layer shows reason for significant concern in West and Southwest Bloomington. There are quite a few red dots more than one mile from a grocery. This becomes more concerning when considering walkability. Most of the grocery stores are located along high traffic roads that are difficult for pedestrians to navigate while carrying groceries. So, efforts to improve food security in West and Southwest Bloomington may be beneficial to disadvantaged community members.

“There are also far more fast-food restaurants than grocery stores in Bloomington-Normal,” the team noted. “In all, unhealthy food options are more available than healthy ones.

“Distance to, prevalence of, and accessibility of healthy food options are directly related to a person’s overall health. Neighborhoods which lack these nutritious and affordable food options are called food deserts. While located in urban and rural settings, food deserts are found predominantly in low-income communities of color.

“Individuals in these food deserts will face a higher density of tobacco stores and fast-food restaurants with few, if any, healthy food options. When people and families have to expend more energy and resources to get fresher, healthier options than food found at convenience stores or fast-food restaurants, they will often choose to buy more readily available and less healthy food. Fast-food restaurants and tobacco companies target low-income and minority populations in their advertising—such as fast-food companies offering free prizes and more kids’ meals in lower income neighborhoods than higher income communities.”

Middle school and high school students walking to school are confronted with many “concealed dangers,” students advised. On the way to and from school in some neighborhoods, students may pass by multiple fast food establishments as well as alcohol and tobacco stores. According to several studies, more than fifty percent of U.S. schools that are mostly minority have both fast food and tobacco stores in close proximity, and low-income and minority students have a greater chance of taking routes to and from school that can expose them to fast food, alcohol, and tobacco stores.

Latino students are more likely to go to schools that are in areas including multiple alcohol, tobacco, and fast food establishments. Having these establishments near schools can increase the rates of obesity seen in school children as well as higher rates of teenage smoking, and children who pass these places everyday on their way to school are more likely to be offered alcohol, tobacco, or even other drugs.

“It is encouraged that students walk to school, but the dangers of kids passing these businesses can lead to unhealthy habits,” the ISU study warned. “Compared to middle schoolers, high schoolers have a higher chance of being affected by encountering these businesses daily. In sum, the literature points to a clear association between socioeconomic status and the chance of passing by these types of establishments.”

While a trio of new groceries has emerged in Bloomington over the past two years, two are located on the Veteran’s Parkway strip, and two, including the Green Top Grocery on the near West Side, are specialty retailers featuring organic, “natural,” and other trait-identified products that often are out of the basic price range of lower-income families. Green Top is a co-op grocery, where customers can purchase shares in the store to receive discounts and rebates – a model which according to Stevenson Center study coordinator Frank Beck may not fit the conventional “cultural dynamic” or consumer preferences of lower-income and minority consumers.

Kroger’s location at College and Emerson serves both Illinois Wesleyan students and West Siders. But Aldi’s, a discount food outlet, operated on Market Street, serving a West Side clientele, for roughly nine years before moving to the western city fringe near Walmart and opening a second location on Veteran’s bordering Normal’s east side Walmart – in either case, a drive or bus ride for the West Side’s poorer or older residents. A Latino grocery operates in the former Market Street location, with fresh produce but a tailored product selection.

While chains like Walmart have been making inroads into populous metropolitan inner city neighborhoods, securing a major new grocery in or adjacent to Bloomington’s lower-income neighborhoods is a daunting challenge.

“There’s a whole science out there of, ‘Should we build it, and where should we built it?’” Beck related. “Those folks that are going to spend those millions of dollars know that science back and forth. At the community level, by rough estimates, these days, you have to have a population of about 3,000 to make ends meet, if you’re the owner of a grocery store. Some small towns have thought of co-ops and other things – food deserts are not just in urban; they’re in rural as well.”

Tenth Festival of India September 17 on ISU Quad

McLean County India Association cordially invites everyone to the 10th Festival of India, Saturday, September 17 from noon to 6 p.m. on the Illinois State University Quad.

The annual event is an opportunity to showcase and share Indian culture and tradition with the community. It gives visitors the chance to learn about the history of India, and what makes the country unique.

Admission to the festival is free and open to the entire community.

The festival will present Indian States Parade, Children and Adult Cultural Program, Bollywood Band, Workshops on Yoga, Meditation, Pranayama, and BollyX (Bollywood Dance Fitness). The day will also offer Henna and Face painting, Crafts and Jewelry, Indian sports for children, Balloon art and a Bounce house.

A variety of North and South Indian, and street food will be offered.

The Festival of India was awarded a Mirza Arts and Culture Grant from Illinois Prairie Community Foundation in 2016 and Harmon Arts Grant Award from Town of Normal in 2012! MCIA thanks both organizations for their generosity.

Sponsors include MCIA, Illinois State University’s Office of the President, College of Fine Arts, and Indian Student Association.

Taste of the West Tasty Display of Local Diversity

The West Bloomington Revitalization Project's Taste of the West event wasn't fooling around April 1.

Local culinary lights brought their multicultural best to Bloomington First Christian Church to benefit the services the Project brings to the west side.

Jessica Chacko Jackson and local students (below) represented Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal at the Taste. Fifty-seven individuals signed the NIOT/NIOS pledge at the event.

Taste of the West featured dishes by Romelia Aza, Annie Foster, Selina Gunn, Reve Jackson III (Jackson's Soul), Chef Jose (Rosy's Grill), and Kelly Mathy (Kelly's Bakery & Cafe).

April 1 Taste of the West Rustles Up Great Local Grub

The great chefs and eateries of Bloomington's west side will show off their multicultural wares during Taste of the West, Friday, April 1 at 5:30 PM - 7:30 PM at First Christian Church of Bloomington, 401 W. Jefferson Street.

The free competitive tasting event -- sponsored by the West Bloomington Revitalization Project (WRBP) -- will feature dishes by Romelia Aza, Annie Foster, Selina Gunn, Reve Jackson III (Jackson's Soul), Chef Jose (Rosy's Grill), and Kelly Mathy (Kelly's Bakery & Cafe).

"This is an opportunity to taste the rich diversity in food and cultures in Bloomington -- Not Your Average Chain Restaurant here," Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal Steering Committee member and Bloomington City Councilwoman Karen Schmidt noted. "West Bloomington is where our city started, and it embraces the wonderful diversity of cultures that many Bloomingtonians don't even know exist."

The WRBP Annual Meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at the church.