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The Elephant in the Kitchen

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In the fight against childhood obesity in the United States, we are getting back to basics. We know that simple things like eating more plant-based foods, exercise, nutritional knowledge and portion control can have a huge impact. The Obama administration's recent release of MyPlate gives us a clear visual of proper portion control and First Lady Michelle Obama's incredible leadership with the Let's Move campaign and White House garden have shown us all that there is no single solution, rather we need to work together to address this epidemic with urgency.

While the above solutions are simply stated, and may even seem intuitive, the challenges to implementing them can be much more complicated, especially in low-income areas where childhood obesity is much more prevalent. We saw this in ABC's Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution in which he addressed the quality of school lunches and the financial and institutional challenges in improving them.

We also see this in the widespread existence of food deserts. Many have speculated that the key factor in childhood obesity in low-income areas is a dearth of supermarkets selling the good foods that are the key to providing the nutrients our brains and bodies need for health and success. But, as a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine reported, easy access to supermarkets selling fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods does not result in a lower obesity rate.

I applaud the researchers for conducting this study and reporting their results. I understand that grocery stores that carry fresh produce wont solely impact the obesity epidemic. I also realize that limiting the number of fast food restaurants is impractical. While there are many challenges to turning the tide on childhood obesity, one basic solution is often overlooked. It is a solution that can transform a child's life and that studies have shown has a direct impact on childhood obesity: teaching our children and families how to cook.

I know the benefits cooking can have, because over the last eight years I have witnessed the way the simple act of cooking can transform children, their families and the way they live. In 2003, Chef Art Smith, artist Jesus Salgueiro, and I founded Common Threads (commonthreads.org), a non-profit that teaches low-income children how to cook wholesome, affordable meals. Over eight years, we have worked with more than 4,000 eight- to twelve-year-olds -- the ages when children are forming habits and tastes that last a lifetime.

At Common Threads we teach our kids how to cook, share nutritional information to enable healthy choices, expose them to new foods and different cultures, and encourage them to practice their cooking skills at home with their families. I have seen first-hand the incredible impact these new skills and experiences can have on a child. The sense of awe when a child tries a new food... and loves it! The pride so many of our students have in making a delicious meal and the joy that comes with sitting down with their family to enjoy it. I've seen children realize the importance of math when doubling recipes and I've experienced the wonder when a child is opened to new cultures.

We are aware of the challenges facing low-income families and have developed a program to empower children and their families with knowledge and skills they will carry with them into every part of their lives. Sadly, good food can be expensive, so our recipes aim to feed a family of four for less than $10-15. Our work goes beyond the classroom, for as anyone in education will say, parental involvement is crucial to a child's success in school and it's the same at Common Threads. Knowing it is imperative to involve the families, we hold parent outreach sessions in which we let them know what their kids are learning, share nutritional information, teach them how to build a pantry, to shop on a budget and additional cooking skills. We are hearing from our families that after going through our program, they go shopping together (usually traveling five miles to the nearest grocery store) and seek out more fruits and vegetables, and recreate the meals or similar versions of the recipes learned at Common Threads.

We are shaping a lifetime of healthy behaviors and here is the proof:

  • 66% of families reported they have used the recipes given in class at home
  • 79% of parents reported that their child has asked to participate in cooking at home several times since starting Common Threads
  • 97% of parents reported that their child has asked to help with grocery shopping at least once since starting Common Threads
  • 84% of parents reported that their child has expressed more interest in the family eating together since beginning Common Threads
  • 99% of parents said that they have seen at least some improvement in their child's self-esteem (67% reported a lot of improvement)
  • 98% of parents reported that their child has shared information at home about the foods eaten in class and nutrition information taught in class - some specifics are their children are more willing to try foods from different countries, portion control, willingness to try new things at least once, what to buy when grocery shopping, making food from scratch

(The findings above are based on surveys of Common Threads programs conducted by the University of Illinois Chicago.)

Our ties to food run deep; we all hold personal, familial and cultural ties to food. How we eat is very much a reflection about our past, present and future. Cooking provides us with a way to nourish our bodies and our souls and the table can be an anchor for a busy home, a place to connect with those we love.

Even in the era where celebrity chefs have attained rock star status and cooking shows are as popular as American Idol, people still don't know how to cook. We are on a second generation of non-cookers and home cooked meals in which families ceremoniously gather around a table seem like a nightly tradition only our grandparents remember. Studies indicate that children who have regular family dinners are less likely to be obese, do better in school and are less likely to smoke, drink, and do drugs.

We have learned at Common Threads that by teaching children the love, joy, knowledge and skills of cooking, they become empowered to make healthy choices and take control of their own physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Our children become positive role models to their families and peers at school, regardless of their proximity to either fast-food restaurants or grocery stores. We have also seen our children proactively reverse their risk of type 2 diabetes and fight like hell for their own health and their families.

As our society strives to learn more about how to address and prevent childhood obesity, I hope the importance of teaching cooking skills becomes a larger part of the discussion. Common Threads has shown that in doing so children learn that there is power in food and everyday, at every meal they know they have a choice and with cooking skills, they have a daily opportunity to enjoy and control their future.

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