Thursday, May 27, 2010

What’s on your plate?

by: Jillayne Samatas

When I first started working at Common Threads I was not very knowledgeable about nutrition or what our plate should look like when I ate meals. I grew up in a very healthy household where chicken and vegetables were the typical meals; no chips, cookies or sugary cereals. Some of those “no” foods have come back to haunt me in my adult life; “moderation is key” I try to tell myself.

Although my meals were pretty healthy growing up I didn’t really know why they were good for me or why we ate a protein, grain and lots of vegetables at the dinner table. It wasn’t until I learned a healthy way to construct my plate that I really understood the benefits of balancing foods and thinking about the things I eat. Each week in Common Threads’ classes children have a large role in making the final product they sit down and eat at the end of each class. A beautiful display of colors and textures end up being on their plates which typically ends up being ½ of their plates filled with vegetables, ¼ with protein and ¼ with grains. It’s so simple, yet easy to remember. It can make meals fun to think about when it is broken down in that way; I have found myself cooking some random things in my kitchen, but keeping in mind this simple plate format for my meals.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Starla’s Story

Elizabeth Journet used to feed her nine‐year‐old daughter, Starla, and her siblings what she thought was kid‐friendly food: things like chicken nuggets and French fries. But, after Starla began attending hands‐on cooking classes at Common Threads, mom started to notice a marked difference in Starla that affected the whole family.

“Now, Starla asks me to change what I give the kids for dinner,” says Elizabeth. “For example, she asks for salad, or she asks if, instead of just rice, we can try some veggies on it.”
Starla is also eager to lend a hand in the kitchen. “The classes have made me feel more encouraged to cook at home,” Starla says. “ I like to cook meat and different vegetables, and I like telling my mom how to cook food from different countries.”

In addition to learning about foods that are good for her, Starla loves the cultural curriculum that Common Threads provides. “You make lots of different foods from different places, and it’s so fun and interesting to learn about new parts of the world!”
Starla’s mom is impressed with her daughter’s new enthusiasm. “

I have a buddy in the kitchen now, and sometimes I’m her assistant when we make things,” Elizabeth says. “She definitely wants to do more with recipes and eating right, and that makes me work harder as a mom.”

Every year, Common Threads teaches 1,000 low‐income children, just like Starla, how to cook wholesome and affordable food because we believe that through our hands‐on cooking classes we can help prevent childhood obesity and reverse the trend of generations of non‐cookers, while celebrating our cultural differences and the things people all over the world have in common.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sometimes we say Food is Love. But is food love?

by: Allison Liefer

The last image I hold of my grandmother before her stroke, she was in her big vegetable and flower garden, in the lawn of the farm where she was a working wife for sixty-odd years, wearing her house shorts, bending over at the waist to pull chard. She put the chard in a big plastic bowl, which she took to the pump and filled it with water. She sloshed the chard around in the bowl, dumped the water, pumped the well again, and on and on until the greens were clean enough to shake dry under the August sun, and send home, back to the city, with me. Giving is love. Selfless work is love. And making little offerings - these hold love. Being together with family, ideally, is love. So it’s not the food that’s love, it’s the togetherness and giving and effort expended to the end of giving – that’s the love.

It’s an important distinction, one I hope the students Common Threads teaches understand, and one our curriculum emphasizes: At the end of each Common Threads class, our students sit and eat together, having worked together as a classroom family to create their wholesome meal. And Common Threads is working to ensure our kids are taking home our recipes and their skills to their own families too – We’re giving parents cookbooks, inviting them to parent meetings to learn healthy cooking techniques themselves, and piloting two programs aimed at bringing the families we serve food they can’t always get in their neighborhoods: market baskets of fresh local produce at a great discount, and pantry kits full of things like olive oil, spices, and rice, the pantry staples that make healthy cooking at home easier.

At Common Threads, we believe the act of cooking and eating healthy food together is a priceless, valuable act, one that families can and should share together. Our simple hope is simply that children get enough healthy food and enough love to sustain them. And actually, it seems that at least some of our kids DO get it! Here are two answers to the question “Why do you want to take Common Threads?” from students at some of our partner schools applying for the next Cooking Skills and World Cuisine session:

“I like to cook because I can tell people how to cook. Also, I can tell my mom and dad new recipe[s] as l learn. “– Imani Janae Pearce, age 8

“I want to cook very healthy food so people can eat it. I want to make healthy food for everyone so we can celebrate.” – Altari McBride, age 8

Friday, May 7, 2010

My Common Threads Story

by: Mary Ann Weprin

In the winter of 2007 I started volunteering for Common Threads. A good friend of mine encouraged me to sign up as a volunteer. I had just moved to Chicago and it was winter, I love kids, I wanted to meet new people and I love food so I figured it would be a decent way to spend an afternoon. I signed up for the Monday afternoon class having no idea what to expect. I hate to be dramatic but I would say my first visit changed my life.

I had been teaching for years and had never seen kids in this type of atmosphere. I was used to kids learning behind a desk. I had been the person drilling them about what they knew and what they did not know. This was an eye opening experience for me. These kids were interested, engaged, excited and eager to learn. The food was delicious, the other volunteers were lovely (one in particular, is a good friend to this day), the curriculum was amazing…I was hooked.

Fast forward three years later; I manage volunteers all day long for Common Threads. I find people to work with our kids every afternoon. These people believe in our mission and are committed to our kids. They give their time, energy, skills, knowledge, patience and love.
When I talk to potential volunteers, I tell them my Common Threads story. They always ask me what I loved about volunteering. My answer is simple: to me, volunteering with Common Threads is the best way to be with children. You are there to cook a meal together. You work side by side with kids who need your knowledge, support, help and friendship. They need you to tell them how to hold a knife, to ask about their math test and for you to be a positive role model each week. By cooking and sharing a meal with them each week you are giving them gifts that will last a lifetime. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

Mary Ann Weprin is the Manager of Volunteer Programs at Common Threads. If you are interested in having your own life-changing experience, please contact

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Working Mom’s Dilemma

by: Linda Novick O’Keefe

One of our parents works three jobs. I will say it again, three jobs. Sigh. She is a single mother with five children, who are quite particular about what they eat. I am exhausted just thinking about how she manages. She doesn’t have a car so grocery shopping has always been truly difficult. And when she is able to go to Aldi, once a month, she can only buy what she can schlep back home while managing five children. Deep sigh. Here is mom (a very tired mom) trying to get through each day supporting her family and trying her hardest to make them happy. She is trying to do her best and has had to rely on her community (as we all must do) and community businesses (McDonalds and Churches) to feed her children meals over the years, day after day. So mom’s kids, like many of the children that Common Threads works with, have grown up eating fried chicken, burgers and mac’n’cheese.

I love to see my kids wolf down food, being a food pushing Jewish Mother, it gives me deep pride. What mom doesn’t love to watch her children eat and smile and murmur things like “mmmm, delicious”? I work one job, have two kids, a husband that is a real teammate and continue to realize and affirm each day the fact that life is a juggling act and isn’t easy. For me, seeing my kids at the table each night trying a few bites of a simple healthy dinner makes me happy. If they throw a “this is delicious mommy” at me, I am over the moon.

We all could stand a lesson in moderation, in cooking healthy and eating a bit cleaner. Our bodies were never meant to eat and digest processed foods in the quantities that they are being consumed. It is easy for me to say that and then run over to Stanley’s or Whole Foods or the Green City Market and stock up on local, sustainable produce. But what about my single mother in Austin with her five kids, no car, and three jobs?

What I love about our program is that we are teaching young children, the next generation to cook, to explore and create in the kitchen. They are then more open to grocery shopping making the trek fun family time, making the trek and the schlep a bit easier for their parents. Our hope at Common Threads is that we not only teach our students and their parents how to cook and make healthier decisions but that we make it fun by learning about the world, how food connects us all and how we are all more similar than different.

There are obvious differences between myself and the single mother in Austin. We are both strong women; mothers; we share a desire to nourish and provide a loving and supportive environment for our children; we want the world for our children; and we want the world to be a better, safer, healthier place for them and their children.

Food access is a social justice issue. We all deserve the right to be healthy, to keep our families healthy and food plays an important role. Common Threads revolves around the idea that food connects us all regardless of where we are from, what race we are, what religion we practice. Our hope is that we will reverse the trend of generations of non-cookers one child, one family, one school, one community at a time.

Jamie Oliver made a really important comment about the power of parents “if we all sing from the same song sheet.” So let’s sing, let’s sing loud and strong… perhaps the politicians and the grocery stores will hear us.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Uncommon Pantry—Common Problem…

by: Courtney Treutelaar

I input data into the Access computer program related to our programmatic activities. We use this data to then assess the culinary program and define our successes and areas of improvement. Much of this data is based on a survey that we give to the children on the first day of the program and the last day of the program. In Fall 2009 our survey asked if the children use the recipes in class while cooking at home. Malakye Hall responded, stating, “No, but I would like to”L. I don’t have the ingredients needed at home.

Malakye’s response caught my attention and I stopped what I was doing and noted this on a Post-it for me to come back to later. When I revisited this point I thought about the fact that although we try to measure how much the kids learn, we can’t measure their personal obstacles to actually reach the desired goal. This statement was Malakye’s voice and her attempt to be heard. She wanted to cook the recipes from class, but doesn’t have the means to do so. This is the problem for so many of the families who have children in our program.

As a child I certainly had a culinary interest and spent time in the kitchen. I had the interest and the means to whip up any strange concoction such as inedible “cakes” and palate “surprises,” from the vast array of my pantry. These kids don’t have the luxury of a stocked pantry to entertain their creative culinary minds. Keeping common pantry items such as flour and rice in their homes seems to be an unusual occurrence. As a chef instructor at Common Threads, I often ask, “Has anybody taken these recipes home and made them?” I typically receive a blank stare or endearing little faces shaking their heads no, a response that I was hoping to not receive. Unfortunately, I know why I receive this answer. They can’t. They simply do not have the means to do so.

A recent program improvement here at Common Threads has given me encouragement related to this common “pantry problem. One of our current priorities at Common Threads is to educate parents on the value of nutrition and to give them a “Common Pantry” starter kit which includes non-perishable food items like olive oil, red wine vinegar, canned tomatoes, pasta and various spices. Common Threads is dedicated to engaging parents and families alongside our students in hopes of building healthier, happier family units and, ultimately, healthier, stronger communities. As part of our comprehensive parent outreach initiative that began in the Fall of 2010, we have also invited the parents of our students to a meeting where they learn how to prepare a healthy, well-balanced meal and also receive important nutrition information. Our intent is that with this pantry and the nutritional information, we are providing the parents as well as the children a base to start cooking our healthy and affordable meals at home.

This is an important step in the right direction. I’m encouraged to hear recently from a child that she made homemade pasta at home from our Italy curriculum. Another child was proud that he served his mother Haitian chicken tenders, a new recipe this semester. I’m looking forward to receiving the survey data this spring and am hopeful that Malakye’s response served as an important lesson and that the responses in the survey are much different from the fall of 2009.