Monday, June 28, 2010

Jai Caldwell - Her Story

Ten-year-old Jai challenges anyone who doubts her new culinary prowess to taste for them self. I’ll give them a sample of my food, and then see if they still don’t think Common Threads taught me how to cook.”
Since starting Common Threads, Jai is a frequent contributor to family meals, helping her mom sauté chicken and standing at the ready to add ingredients.
“I have to monitor my spice cabinet now because she experiments,” says Jai’s mom, LaVonnyah. “My red wine vinegar disappears quickly, but I don’t mind because she loves what des does. Commons Threads is a treasure and I proud to say my daughter attended the program.”
Jai admits that she’s changed a lot since participating in Common Threads. “Before I stated, I was very uncultured. Common Threads has made me more open as a person,” she says. “I also can as well as my mom, now”

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Kid on The Block

by: Grace Lichaa

So I am the new kid on the block… or rather the new kid on the remote block. I started at Common Threads in April 2010 as the Washington, DC Program Manager.

Whenever I tell my friends about my new job, they would always say, “You get to teach kids how to cook and teach them nutrition and culture? Grace, this job was made for you.” I can remember thinking exactly the same thing the minute I walked into the school kitchen where our chef instructor Chef Sam Vick-McGill lead her class of 15 low-income 8-12 year old kids how to chop a pepper for Thai curry. I saw kids learning to use knives and learning the difference between mint and basil. What I was really seeing was kids wanting to succeed and learning to make healthy decisions in their food habits because they have never tasted or even smelled these herbs and never given that opportunity.

The best part about working at Common Threads is that it doesn’t feel like work at all. Every time I go to class I feel like I am at recess except that we all practice knife skills instead of kickball. Along with assisting in the kitchen, I reach out to community members, work with schools, organize volunteers, and talk to people who are as excited as me about our mission of promoting cultural acceptance, nutrition.

Blocks from where billons are being spent and some of the most powerful people in the country make decisions, Chef Sam, our amazing volunteers, and I hang out in a cafeteria with 15 students learning about Japanese culture and how to roll sushi. We are here putting into action and spreading the knowledge that the First Lady finds so important. We are doing our small part in increasing food security for these kids and giving them the skills to make better nutritional decisions. We are Common Threads and we are moving our future leaders in the right direction providing safe spaces, important skills, and knowledge to our students.

As I leave the kitchen I see Thomasin, the after-school coordinator, who has been an avid supporter of our program. She tells me that Eric was reluctant to walk out the door on the last class…. Man, I’m going to miss this cooking class. I totally understand him, it’s the feeling you get when recess ends.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Power of Food

by: Chef Art Smith via Huffington Post

On June 4, I was fortunate enough to be among the hundreds of chefs who visited the White House South Lawn, eagerly supporting First Lady Michelle Obama's launch of the "Chefs Move to Schools" program. This new initiative calls on America's premier chefs to join the First Lady's "Let's Move!" campaign by adopting local schools and giving nutrition advice and cooking tips to school officials, parents and kids.
The visit was particularly gratifying for me, as forging connections between chefs, schoolchildren and the foods that surround them has been my mission for the past seven years. The Common Threads program -- which I started in Chicago in 2003 with my life partner Jesus Salgueiro -- was originally an avenue to provide underprivileged youth with the magic that accompanies tasting new, fresh foods and the satisfaction and confidence that comes along with preparing your own meals and learning new skills.
These are rewarding experiences I was fortunate to grow up with. But it wasn't until the aftermath of 9/11 that I was reawakened to the wonderful bonds that foods - even the most basic ones - can create. I traveled to Ground Zero with admittedly little to offer to exhausted rescue workers. But the homemade cookies we did share with them seemed to bring a little comfort, or at the very least, a smile.
It would be tough to imagine a clearer illustration of the power of food.
Our goal when we started Common Threads was, simply put, to bring this experience to children in low-income situations, often living in the "food deserts" that the First Lady has brought to the forefront of our national nutrition conversation. By partnering with public schools and exposing children to new foods from different cultures, we gave them a unique experience in a safe after-school setting. By making meals together, they gained basic cooking skills which they then shared with their friends and families. But it would have been difficult to foresee just how deep the nutrition crisis ran and how intertwined it was with so many of the other problems today's generation of young people faces.
Children living with hunger have lower math scores and are more likely to have to repeat a grade. Those deficient in essential nutrients are more likely to be hyperactive, absent and tardy, and have academic difficulties, including behavioral and attention problems. And, paradoxically, our undernourished children are overweight. Obesity and under-nutrition are linked problems, ones that disproportionately impact low-income and minority children and families.
The depth and urgency of the situation shows just how necessary the "Chefs Move to Schools" program is. And the success we've had through Common Threads has me thrilled at the potential of using chefs and cooking skills as a valuable and effective tool in the fight against child obesity.
Our most recent program evaluation found that 94 percent of Common Threads student participants now make healthier lunch choices and 60 percent have started helping their parents with grocery shopping. These kinds of improvements, made in just the span of a 12- week program, are what lend credence to Michelle Obama's goals for "Let's Move" -- they are lofty, but achievable. Surely it's possible to take the successes we've had in just Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Washington DC, and bring them to cities across the country with the help of the nation's best chefs.
What have we learned as our program has evolved? First and foremost, we can't sell our kids short. They're open to trying new foods and hungry to tackle new skills.
We've learned how critical it is to make real food the norm again; our bodies were never meant to eat processed foods that can sit for weeks on the shelf at the local gas station. I'm sure you joined me as my heart sank upon seeing the students in Huntington, W.Va., who couldn't identify a tomato on "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution." But if you don't live near a farm or have access to a supermarket, produce isn't on your radar, especially in elementary school. By taking the extra effort to make sure that kids just encounter real foods, we're halfway to getting them to eat some.
As "Let's Move!" correctly recognizes, it's critical to bring parents and community members on board and build coalitions. Our comprehensive parent outreach initiative through Common Threads includes parent meetings with nutrition education and healthy cooking demonstrations, kid-friendly cookbooks, and pantry starter-kits for all participant families. We've had some parents go on to become chefs themselves and volunteer with us! Parents and family members have shared how liberating it is to be able to take charge of their food choices, no longer relying on processed, packaged foods and no longer intimidated by the preparation involved in home-cooked recipes.
Few things are more empowering for children than learning skills that have lifelong value. And we see the effects beyond even cooking -- through the classes, they work together, appreciate new cultures, and share a meal. Taken together, we're increasing appreciation for quality foods, reversing the trend of generations of non-cookers, and celebrating our cultural differences and the things people all over the world have in common.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cooking and Process

by: Allison Liefer

Common Threads teaches cooking skills, and our curriculum is filled with healthy ethnically diverse recipes that professional chefs have tested and approved. But at the end of class every week, it’s more important to me, personally, that our students were involved in the process of cooking. Of course, they should have a healthy meal to eat together at the end of class! But sometimes, as happened to one of our fine chef instructors, the kids’ empanada dough just doesn’t come together, and the chef has to improvise, happily instructing the kids to wet their fingertips and smash their balls of corn flour together to make – ta da – sopes!

So Common Threads’ program is a cooking class, but it’s also an after-school activity that lets children practice teamwork, creativity, follow-through, autonomy, and taking responsibility.

Who remembers learning to cook? Who remembers following instructions and getting to maneuver fascinating machinery? When I was a kid, my mom had an old fashioned hand-cranked cracker grinder; I got to grind crackers for the crumbs that she used to batter our pork tenderloin. No longer does my mother pan-fry pork chops in oil on the stove; health-consciousness has taken hold and she’s making recipes from the back of the spice catalog, using seasonings to flavor her food, not fat. But back then, we ate fried pork tenderloin. So, after I ground the butter crackers, I would get to take a turn banging the loins with our meat tenderizer, a small spiked mallet. It seemed very heavy; it made high-heel marks in the meat. Then we dredged the loins in egg, then crumbs, and then I stood back as she slapped the meat onto the hot frying pan and it spat! By the way, the meat was often overcooked, and I must have known even as a 9 year-old that my stomach prefers veggies & tofu. But the end result didn’t matter. What I enjoyed more than eating dinner was that kitchen time with my mom, helping grind and pound and dredge, and hearing the splattering fat in the hot pan.

The activity of helping cook is a lesson in order, in process, in full engagement, and in the impact of your actions. So many contemporary school teachers feel they must “teach to the tests” to make sure their state-mandated test results are high enough to ensure, in many cases, the continued existence of the school itself. And Common Threads’ curriculum does fulfill state Board of Education curriculum standards! But I am also glad we can offer kids a creative learning experience one day a week after school. Just listen to a few things our students have to say when asked to reflect upon their experiences in the kitchen:

“I want to learn from a good cook and how to make chicken stur frie (sic) and how to chop and dice vegetables without messing up and I want to learn more than what I know.”
- Camron, age 10

“I want to learn to make food to help my grandma.”
- Felix, age 8

"I was having a bad day today but am now having a good one because I am here!"
- Aliysha, age 11

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Privilege of Volunteering

by: James Teague

The moment I walked into the Chicago Cultural Center, I knew it was going to be a long day. Through my place of employment, I had been asked to help set up for Common Threads’ World Festival event. It was my day off but it was only a three-hour commitment. I thought why not, I love to volunteer anyway so sure. What was suppose to have been a few hours, became all day and I haven’t missed a World Festival yet! My willingness to stay and help initially had to do with the need; I knew nothing of the organization. But by the next year, not only did I know more, I was ‘in love with it’ and I brought friends that year to lend a helping hand also. I was completely taken by the mission and I was so committed to the women who were committed it to it. Alex, Connie, and Linda, the three women who welcomed me into the folds, embodied the one characteristic that I believe is most important in life – Compassion! I knew I was willing to come back for every festival and/or event for which they needed help. I believed in the mission and them that much. When the offer to volunteer in the afterschool class came, I was a bit hesitant. I had never really been fond of kids and three hours a week on my day off gave me pause. After giving in I realized that as much as I loved the festival, the long day, the ability to see all the hard work pay off before your eyes as the evening unfolds; it couldn’t compare to being in class with the kids.
Ahh, these kids! Who, on paper are defined as disadvantage and underserved, and they may be. But they don’t seem to act like it or show, it’s just their life! After completing my day at the hotel, my ‘real’ job, I headed to my first afterschool class. That first class, that first day, I remember it like it was five minutes ago. Here I am waiting with the chef instructor and the other volunteers and I had no idea what to think, what to expect, what to say, do, feel! I was at a loss and for me that is a lot to say. When the students arrived, their faces lit up like it were Christmas Day and they were in their own toy store. They were excited, exuberant, rambunctious, and eager to get started.
It felt like instantly, but I was hooked, on the kids, on the class, on the value we all would get out of it. They were so hungry for this knowledge and opportunity and we all were just as hungry to share it with them. To watch these kids learn and grow over the 12 weeks of the afterschool classes was simply amazing to me and to be a part of it was nothing short of core changing. These kids, who were loud or funny or shy or scared all learned, some reluctantly all enthusiastically. I had some really great moments with some really great kids and each touched me in their own way. Yet there was one moment that sticks out above all. Picture it, Summer Camp 2009 I was having a rough time in many areas of life, work, home, social, romantic, you name it and it was weighing heavy. I was on my way to camp on a day I just wanted to be in bed with my head covered. One of the former students in the after school class was in summer camp and ran up to me and hugged me and said she missed me which made me smile I admit. But she also insisted that when her group ate, I would come eat with them, even though I was working with another group of kids. I agreed thinking by the time it happens, she would be so wrapped up in class it wouldn’t even matter. How wrong I was! After the food was prepared and the creed had been said, she had the entire class wait while she came to get me and took me to eat with her group. She has no idea what she did for me that day, I was there for them, to teach, to share, even to laugh. But she made me feel so special in those few moments and worrying about my life, in those moments ended.
What I know from personal experience is you do not have to be a product of your environment, cycles can be broken. You see, I would have qualified to be one of these kids in this program, by definition, labeled as underprivileged. Also, what I know from personal experience is it takes is one moment, a moment when someone gives you an opportunity you may not have access to in that day-to-day life. For me, back then, that was Barbara Britton and Greensboro’s Children Theatre, for me to believe that I can break out of that box, be more, do more, want more, have more, and ultimately give more. For over a 1,000 of those kids a year, it can and for some will be Common Threads.
I know I look back now and again and remember just how that first experience opened me up for the next one and the next one and so on. I didn’t know as it happened what in the end it would mean. What I did know in that moment, this is only my first door. Where’s the next?
What I gain is so much more tangible than the 3 hours a week I give up. My being in that class, with those kids in the end is as much for me as it is about them. I called this the PRIVILEDGE of volunteering and it is too, all mine!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Common Threads World Garden

by: Linnzie Pandel

Common Threads World Garden is in full swing at Kenwood Community Park on 49th & Dorchester. The World Garden is an educational environment using horticulture to teach children how we, as a world family, share in the common threads of growing food. Our mission is to promote a nurturing relationship with the earth, encourage healthy eating and learn to embrace our cultural differences. We believe that our interactive approach can make a difference in understanding the ways in which food connects our communities.

Thirty five kids from Tuner Drew and Henderson Elementary Schools have helped wake up our sleepy winter garden into a flourishing spring array of blush English breakfast radish, spicy crisp greens and vibrantly colored Swiss chard. Herbs like basil, cilantro, oregano, mint, parsley and lavender have filled our once empty beds and surprise all of the kids week after week on the extent of their growth on their weekly return. You see, many kids in our world today and adults for that matter have never grown anything that they would one day consume. We write our grocery lists and enter a mega mart to purchase everything on that list without thinking of where it orginated. We don’t have the patience to wait for what we want now.
In the world garden, our kids planted broccoli 60 days ago and are now seeing the beautiful flowers bloom. It has been a proud moment when our kids run over to see the progress of something that once fit in the palm of their hands. They have never seen the stages of a real growing strawberry. “Why are they green?” someone asked during early spring. Just three short weeks later the kids were harvesting their first crop of perfect, bright red, sweet aromatic strawberries! It was a very exciting day for everyone involved in the World Garden.
The kids are excited to come back to the garden to see their plants grow but they have also enjoyed the meals that we have created with the fruits and vegetables of our garden. The garden doesn’t have a kitchen but with a small butane burner and lots of helping hands we have created a Garden Vegetable Stir-fry, Pesto Pasta with Brocolli Rabe and Thai Spring rolls. The kids have embraced all of the “new” food that they have been educated on except for the coconut milk that was strained out of the world’s largest seed, the coconut!
Last week the garden students had a special visitor, Urban Worm Girl, Amber Gribben. The students have seen garden helpers like butterflies and worms before, but Amber brought in information about worms that no one even knew about. “Worms eat your garbage! Worms don’t have teeth but they are able to ingest approximately half their body weight in food per day. The waste left behind is called castings and casting help to replenish the earth with vital nutrients.” The kids were all screaming with laughter and joy when they were able to hold a real Red Wiggler worm in their hands. Those little guys should be call red ticklers instead!
This isn’t your mud pie kind of place but the kids are having fun and enjoying their life in the garden. Like our Common Threads cooking classes, we educate about the importance of healthy affordable meals that families can cook together. We look forward to the future fruit of the garden in the summer and fall months in our Common Threads Summer Camp program. Educating the kids on foods’ foundation is a labor of love but a real reason to cheers around our picnic table!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Crossing the Food Desert

by: Linda Novick O’Keefe

The other day, I asked our programming staff to provide me with a quick summary of what our kids our eating …

•The average diet of a Common Threads child coming into the program is as follows (per our surveys):

Breakfast: Fruit loops cereal, Doritos, pancakes, many indicated “I don’t eat breakfast”

Lunch: School lunches: tater tots and hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, cheeseburger and fries, nachos and cheese, flaming cheetos, mayonnaise sandwich, pasta with meat, Lunchables, Minute Maid fruit punch, chocolate milk

Dinner: McDonald’s, Shark’s, (other fast food), spaghetti, fried chicken, chicken tenders, homemade tortillas/flautas

I am a “problem, solution” gal. So what do we do? Well, pull soda and full-calorie beverages from schools. That’s good. Reinstate gym class? That would be nice. Put healthy snacks in vending machines; another step in the right direction.

Let’s be real. Where we live determines where we buy food, whether it’s Whole Foods, The Jewel, Dominicks, Aldi, White Hen, McDonalds, J&J, or the corner liquor store. Where we buy our food sways the choices we make and what we eat, whether our food is real and whole or over-processed, whether we opt to buy from local farmers, organic, what is on sale, what the special is, or what looks edible and attractive. What we eat factors into whether we're overweight, our physical and spiritual health, our success in school or at our job and our ability to be the best, happiest person we can be.

I am excited that we are beginning to see changes and that people are finally realizing that we have a serious problem here. I am thrilled that Michelle Obama is taking an active stand on obesity prevention; I love that Jamie Oliver is raising awareness on a national level about obesity and trying to fix our school lunch system—which in my opinion is BROKEN. However, I do believe that we are making small strides. For example, CPS, and several private schools, seem to be getting on the bandwagon of tooting whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables (CPS just mandated some pretty big changes that will begin this coming June, Pepsi and Coke are pulling out of all elementary schools, Pepsi is pulling full-calorie beverages out of secondary school). I think that schools that promote fresh fruits and veggies foods as a benefit are positioning themselves for funding, parental support and great PR. Healthy living and social responsibility are in—it is “hot” to be thoughtful.

I am pleased that small steps are being made every day. But I want to point out that we can talk about the energy balance (calories in calories out) and tell people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables until we're blue in the face, but if we don't address the social barriers of cost and availability, as well as crime rates and safety in low-income minority communities it’s change that is only for the rich.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rody’s Story

Rody LaFrance, a fifth-grader at William Jennings Bryan in Miami, wasn’t always interested in helping his mom and dad in the kitchen. But, after coming to Common Threads, that has changed.

“Now, I like to cook!” Rody says. “I do everything, like cutting, mixing ingredients together, and stirring the pot. Actually, the stirring, that’s my favorite part.”

Rody feels proud of his accomplishments in the kitchen. “I cook much better now, and I help my parents with cooking at home, too,” Rody says.

Rody is now a regular contributor to family meals, consulting his Common Threads cookbook for recipes. Some of the dishes have even become family favorites. “My mom and dad and twin sister thought the spaghetti was really good, and they liked other things we made, too” Rody says. “My recipe book has all the food from my class, so I can teach my parents the recipes.”

Rody also enjoys exploring a different part of the world during each Common Threads cooking class. The class’s trip to Mexico was an especially big hit. “We made tacos,” he says. “It’s fun because you can pick all of your fillings!”

Rody knows he’s learning a lot about himself and the world around him, but mostly he likes Common Threads because it’s fun. “I can make food and just have fun while we’re doing the cooking!” he says.

Every year, Common Threads teaches 1,000 low-income children, just like Rody, 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.

The proof is in the pudding. According to recent surveys: 90% of our students said that they feel like they can cook at home with the skills they learned in Common Threads’ cooking classes; 63% reported that they have used Common Threads’ healthy, ethnic recipes at home; and 90% of parents agree that Common Threads has helped improve their child’s self-esteem.