Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Common Threads

Guest blogger: Kate Vatter

One of the fun parts about working for a non-profit is that the non-profit community is very close-knit. Everyone knows everyone, and, for the most part, supports each other. About a month ago, I had the opportunity to tag along with a friend of mine to visit a non-profit that she supports – so I brought my camera along to capture the experience, natch. ;)

Common Threads was created by Wendy’s friend Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah, who has also cooked for several of Florida’s governors (Wendy worked in Jeb Bush’s office when he was governor) and has been working with Michelle Obama on her obesity-prevention campaign. Common Threads is, quite honestly, the kind of place I would love to work. The organization offers 12-week, after-school cooking classes for underprivileged children – to teach and emphasize the importance of nutrition and well-being, but also to foster an appreciation of cultural diversity.

This is Chef Mimi, who runs the Miami-based program. The classes are held at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus (Florida International University, for those of you who aren’t down with the Florida school system acronyms), in the hospitality department’s student kitchens.

I tagged along with Wendy when she was going to volunteer, and everything about the program is amazing. Seriously. Each week focuses on a different county (see below). The kids are brought to the campus from their respective elementary schools, where they are fed a little snack, do stretches, and Mimi teaches a lesson about whichever county is the focus of that particular day. The day I was there, they were studying France.

Each of the kids gets a photo-copied packet of the recipes. In addition to focusing on certain cultural issues, each lesson also focuses on specific cooking techniques. The day I was there, the kids learned “emulsifying” and “searing.”

They made pork tenderloin with red pepper coulis, broccoli and cauliflower with cheesy sauce, and a goat cheese salad.

The necessary ingredients are already measured out and prepped for them, but…

…the kids do all of it themselves! Chef Mimi did a demonstration searing the pork tenderloin – “Now I’m going to teach you all how to sear.” – and this girl was the lucky duck who got to actually do the cooking. (They only made one piece of pork.)

The kids were all completely engrossed. It was amazing. The kids are divided up into two to three kids per adult volunteer, and each group makes each recipe. At the end, all of the individual dishes the kids made are thrown into one big dish and then served! The three on the left in the photograph below were in Wendy’s group, so I spent most of my time with them.

On the left is Chef Alison and C., and on the right is E., L., and F. Are the chef hats the cutest things you’ve ever seen, or what?

In previous lessons, the kids had learned safe chopping, cutting and dicing skills, and they did all of the food preparation themselves. The kids do all of the cooking themselves, actually, with the adults just supervising and giving instruction when needed.

L. had just come to the United States and barely spoke English, but when she was assigned the task of slicing red peppers, she knew exactly what she was doing.

Just look at her face! She was measuring vinegar for the salad dressing, and the look of pride on her face when she measured it accurately is just the sweetest thing. It breaks my heart – but in a good way!

This girl, the one with the skillet, was adorable. She had a little stool she carried around the kitchen with her because she was too short to reach any of the countertops.

This is E., on the right, with Chef Alison and two of the girls in her group. They were making a cheese sauce for fondue, and she confided to me, “They were a little over-zealous with the cheese.” I thought to myself, Clearly she doesn’t know who she’s talking to. I am the Cheese Princess, okay. I told her there were worse things in life than being over-zealous with cheese!

They put together the red pepper coulis (which was red peppers and yellow onions sautéed in butter and chicken broth, then Mimi and one of the adult volunteers poured all of them into a blender and puréed it); the salad (which required chopping veggies and emulsifying the oil and vinegar and mustard to make the salad dressing); and the cheese fondue sauce (which was…interesting). All of the groups food was combined, which also helped smooth out any issues individual groups had with particular dishes. Then the kids helped dish up all of the food onto individual plates.

Seriously, how cute is she?! I’m such a sucker when it comes to little kids.

The final meal:

The kids cleaned up their stations and then everybody sat down to eat. Before they ate, though, the whole group recited the Common Threads Creed, which I thought was really, really touching. (Imagine it in a bunch of children’s voices!)

Then everyone ate.

This was me with my group. Also, I had gone after work, so I was wearing a white pencil skirt and a white blouse. I would like to note for posterity that I was roaming around a huge kitchen full of kids carrying and splashing red pepper purée everywhere, and I did not get any on me.

Honestly, though, the best part was seeing how self-assured the kids were in the kitchen. I grew up helping my parents in the kitchen – both of my parents were amazing cooks (and bakers), and we have home videos of me “helping” cook when I was only three years old. I never cease to be amazed when I visit adult friends who can’t do anything in the kitchen. Or the youth that come to our programs and refuse to eat anything but junk food or fast food. When I work with our youth, who are in their late teens and twenties (many of whom have children of their own) and are feeding their infants and toddlers Cheetos and candy. When I scolded one of the girls for feeding her 9-month-old chips, she defensively told me that the Cheetos dissolved in the baby’s mouth and it was fine. It boggles the mind. Because to me, on what planet would you ever feed a developing child crap like that? But the saddest part is that kids who aren’t raised with health-conscious parents just don’t know any better. (Maybe they should bring back Home Ec! Ha. :) )

The thing I love about Common Threads is that it emphasizes cooking as a family, and cooking healthy meals as a family. For the final session, the parents come and eat the meal cooked by the kids, and at the end, each child gets to take home a kitchen starter-kit (with basic ingredients and spices) and some kid-friendly cookbooks. Wendy gave me the Common Threads press packet (I’m in charge of putting the information together for the press information for our organization, too, so I always like to check out other non-profits’ just to get new ideas for things to include) and some of the stats they list are really neat – 88% of the children who participate ask their parents for healthier food or food learned about in class at the grocery store, the kids report eating more fruit, more vegetables, and healthier lunches.

Right now, Common Threads only has a couple of affiliate sites – two in Miami, 14 in Chicago, a couple in Los Angeles and one in Washington, D.C. But I have been thinking a lot about Common Threads since I started went to see the program – I wonder what the process is for starting one in a smaller town. The whole program only costs $15,000 per session! (Although they do two per year, I believe, one in the fall and one in the spring.) Which is an amazingly low-budget for a non-profit. Anyway…something I’m keeping on my radar screen for the future…

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