THE BLOG
03/08/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Let's Get One Million Kids Cooking

We are so grateful and proud to announce Common Threads has made it to its 10-year anniversary. Through the hard work of each and every donor, volunteer, board and staff member, Common Threads has grown into a national nonprofit, with plans to reach 30,000 kids this year alone. March 4th marked our seventh annual Chicago World Festival and our 10th year as an organization and the launching of our most ambitious goal yet, to get one million kids cooking by 2017!

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Common Threads was founded on the unshakable belief that the kitchen can be a catalyst for change. Chef Art Smith said it best,

Common Threads began out of our love of family and good food, two basic ingredients that link all people of this world together. Family nurtures us, protects us and connects us to a larger community. Food nourishes us, excites us and teaches us about the world around us.

And that is exactly what showed on Monday night at Chicago World Festival. Our Common Threads community came together, connecting through what links all of us together -- food, family, music, and love.

What I am most proud of within these past 10 years is that through all the cooking, teaching, learning, growth and change, we have learned what it means to listen. We listened to our children, parents, educators and communities.

This is truly a bright time for our organization. We have invested in two separate program evaluations over the past five years with both UIC CUED and University of Chicago's Chapin Hall to help our programs live, breath and evolve. What we have observed through these evaluations is that programs like ours are catalysts for creating school-wide cultures of health that drive community-wide change.

Each year has afforded us experience, learning and failures but most importantly the opportunity to practice the timeless art of listening to our children and families so we can provide them with amended and new programs, resources, and take action solutions to live healthier lives. Healthy lifestyles are important for all of us so we can focus on what matters and move closer to life's treasure chest of love and family.

This investment in our programming is responsible for our growth as an organization and very much why we stand here 10 years later, convinced that at the most basic level, food helps define the quality of a person's life and that if we could teach a million kids to cook, the world would look a whole lot lighter.

In too many of the neighborhoods we work in, the violence is palpable. In just the past few weeks there has been a gang war and rash of shootings in Miami in the Liberty City, Overtown and Brownsville neighborhoods. Families are unable to leave their homes without witnessing violence. Just this past Monday, a young man was shot as he walked to school in Liberty City. A lock down was in effect at one of the middle schools and high schools in the area. Bullet casings have been found outside of Holmes Elementary in Liberty City. The violence in our founding City of Chicago is also inescapable, with the death of Hadiya Pendleton just a few weeks ago. 15-year old Hadiya was shot dead near her Chicago South Side home in February, not more than a few miles from schools where our programming exist. Her death has been transformed into a symbol of the epidemic of gun violence that has swept Chicago.

This is the reality of the challenges we face and will continue to face in the neighborhoods we work in and that need us the most. Our children are sponges and most definitely observant listeners. Being afraid to walk to school, go to the bathroom at school or play outside are experiences that form conclusions which can harden like a callous - preventing them to meet each day in that doe-eyed way.

Living in underserved communities and struggling to make ends meet, our Common Threads families are forced to live with gang-related violence and fear. While it isn't nearly enough, over the years we have tried to give our kiddos and families a toolbox of skills to last a lifetime through cooking, meal planning, shopping on a budget, meal time conversation tips, and even yoga to encourage healthy habits and assist them in courageous dreaming to create a safe, sacred space in their homes by cooking and sharing a meal together.

Our programs highlight the kitchen and dinner table as innovation labs to expand our horizons, world and help to think out-of the-box. And the kids love it, the parents love it and the teachers are digging it too. When we are reminded of how connected we really are to the people that matter most, it makes it a whole lot easier to see how we are connected as a community, a world family and then maybe we can all aspire to reach for the stars.

As Art said so eloquently when he, Jesus Salgueiro and I started dreaming up our Common Threads mission, "our world is a large quilt and its people are the fabric-colorful swatches of beautifully woven material, all joined together by these common threads: family, food, art and music." It couldn't be truer and relevant today. Strategic partnerships across sectors are mission critical if we are going to get a million children cooking; it is going to take a village.

This past summer, our organization completed a five-year strategic plan with a goal of getting a million kiddos to cook healthy meals.

Our vision is to be a change agent, industry and thought leader in promoting wellness in the fight against childhood obesity. We have an incredible call list of friends, activators, influencers and doers across the globe ready to join us in making this vision become a reality.

In 2012, we began holding summits with leadership across sectors in Miami, Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago and are continuing to convene folks in authentic dialogue to share resources and knowledge to achieve collaborative impact. These conversations not only strengthen our food movement but also support healthy dialogue between agriculture and environment and that sparkly space where race and culture intersect which is imperative in building community-based initiatives that aren't one-size-fits-all. We are learning a lot from each other.

I have personally learned so much from my Somali, Senegalse, Ethiopean and Nigerian friends who still never seem to lose their faith in healthy, clean and beautifully simple cooking.

Strategic partnership development and activation is something we are very focused on building in support of our campaign to teach a million kids to cook. Some of these initiatives already in the works include:

  • We have entered into a partnership with the Food Marketing Foundation in support of empowering more families to make the family meal a daily ritual.
  • We created a program with University of Texas' Biology Department to create a curriculum presenting the truth around how we can feed a hungry planet.
  • Chef Homaro Cantu and our team are joining forces to create an innovative science-based after-school curriculum.
  • We entered into a partnership with Kid Pan Alley, another national organization that in support of our campaign to teach a million kids to cook, will work within the classrooms to help children create songs where they can replace their fears around hunger and translate them into light dreams of family memory making in the kitchen and at the table.
  • We were just awarded a $720K grant from Walmart to implement a Full Year Program of Study (including in-school, after-school, teacher training, parent education and summer camps in 40 schools in Miami and Chicago).

Our vision is to be a program and curriculum provider that empowers students, families and organizations to create sustainable change in their communities. We are bringing home-ec back and are going to fight like hell to figure out how to make homemade, artisanal and healthy cool and so very beautiful.

We are also committed to building a workforce development pipeline, cradle to grave, dreaming up a world of people that care about healthy living while exposing students and community members to career pathways that result in deeper community ownership, mentorship and responsibility for wellness outcomes.

There is a lot to do, a lot of i's to dot and t's to cross and there is a seat at the table for everyone. Childhood obesity rates and related diseases represent a growing global epidemic and the clock is ticking. There is no time like the present to get kids and families cooking again and eating together as a family. At the very same time we can all take great breath in one shared truth among any lover of food; time really does stop ticking at the table amongst a family of dreamers. We all do have to eat, multiple times a day. So let's find ways to cook together.

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