06/03/2013 01:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Using the Kitchen as a Catalyst for Change

The quality of school lunches has remained a national topic for years, and for good reason. From the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act led by First Lady Michelle Obama and signed by President Barack Obama and implemented in the 2012-2013 school year, all the way to staff and parent involvement surrounding nutritious lunches--it is a subject matter that is not going away anytime soon.

When my friends Chef Art Smith and his partner Jesus Salgueiro, and I started Common Threads, the organization was created with the belief of educating communities about healthy food choices through the power of cooking. After ten years we still encompass this belief. We have been teaching school-based nutrition and health education programs to under-served communities with the confidence that food defines the quality of a person's life by way of the kitchen as our catalyst for change.

CPS lunchroom workers rally against the prepacked frozen food prepared in schools with "warming kitchens" in May. Credit: (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune photo)

In a time when one third of children and adolescents are overweight and obese and big solutions are critically needed, it is America's corporations, schools, organizations, and even the individual lunch ladies who are rising and rallying for change. Although the nutrition standards for school meals may be improving, the actual preparing and cooking of food within school kitchens is scarce. A recent Chicago Tribune article reported on dozens of Chicago Public Schools food service workers rallying to end prepackaged frozen meals in lunchrooms. According to Unite Here Local 1, which organized the Chicago rally in May 2013, 25 percent of CPS schools serve prepackaged meals that arrive at the schools frozen, and are then reheated in industrial convention ovens.

My friend, Jamie Oliver, is yet another individual working tirelessly to raise awareness of the growing obesity epidemic with the development of his legendary Food Revolution Day - a culmination of his campaign to get people better connected to their food - which just recently took place on May 17th of this year. Jamie started the Food Revolution three years ago, when Huntington, West Virginia was classified as the unhealthiest city in the United States by the CDC in August of 2008. Three years later, after the filming of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," what was once Jamie's Kitchen, is now Huntington's Kitchen and continues to thrive and serve the community with cooking classes for all ages, fresh market, and outreach programs. Efforts like Jamie Oliver's are vital in the goal to create real change and sturdy, sustainable movements by educating children, their families, and communities about nutritious food, the value of cooking, and the confidence to fight obesity.

Behind Jamie's team were John Turenne and his crew at Sustainable Food Systems. They were brought on to evaluate existing programs, recommend changes for more sustainable food choices, and help implement and manage the transition process in West Virginia. This included standardizing operating systems implemented to measure weekly food, labor, and indirect costs. This standardization incorporates new ingredients including: organic milk, local eggs, and seasonal purchasing for recipes to replace prepackaged foods. Here, consultants with a revolutionary perspective on food offer technical assistance service that helps organizations and institutions consider and implement social, ecological and delicious modifications to their current food service delivery. "John Turenne is both nourishing people with real food and helping to transform agriculture in this country," said Alice Waters, Executive Chef/Owner Chez Panisse Restaurant and Foundation.

Another change-maker in this space includes Cook for America, an organization founded by Chef Andrea Martin, who similarly puts an emphasis on holistic, systemic change through the creation of a school foodservice work force that is both capable of preparing healthy scratch-cooked meals from fresh foods, and include site assessments to provide a specific blueprint for moving to a cook-from-scratch food operation.

Corporations like Revolution Foods are also taking the plunge in the effort to improve children's diets, The Economist reports. They serve 1,000 lunchrooms and 200,000 meals each day to students across the U.S, including Northern and Southern California, Colorado, the Mid-Atlantic, New York, New Jersey, and Texas. Their food is prepared fresh daily by chefs using all natural ingredients.

Not all communities are fortunate enough to have change brought to them and instead take action on a local level. That is what Dr. Yvonne Perry, Principal of Kelsey Pharr Elementary School in Miami did. She recently told us of the roadblocks with incorporating Common Threads programming in her school. During her second year as principal, Dr. Perry, a proponent of creative innovative learning, heard about our hands-on cooking classes and thought it would be a great addition to her school that would emphasize wellness in addition to core subject matter. However, as a satellite school, receiving food from a kitchen nearby, it lacked a stove. That didn't stop Dr. Perry from incorporating our programs. "So, I went out and bought a stove", says Dr. Perry. "I wanted Common Threads classes happening right here, at my school." Kelsey Pharr Elementary is currently in their first 10-week Cooking Skills and World Cuisine session, and the kids are cooking and empowered with their new knowledge. "The children love it!" says Dr. Perry, "I'm so happy that our students are learning how to cook - something they may have not been exposed to without the help of Common Threads programs."

Kelsey Pharr Elementary is not the only school with a kitchen that is deficient, forcing frozen food like corn dogs and beans with floating mystery meat to be options for our future leaders. The big elephant in the room needs to be addressed: how can we have kids developing recipes from scratch when there is nowhere to cook? How can new schools, even architecturally recognized ones, be built without kitchens?

Whatever the effort, big or small, it is up to each and every one of us to take the plunge, get creative, and help construct real change. Our Call to Action is no small thing. Inadequate funding, bureaucracy, and unfortunate family environments are just a few of the challenges we face in our uphill battle to change lives through food and education. But these stories of organizations and individuals alike that are determined to successfully implement our programs remind us why we are here and encourage us to continue spreading our resources. And "KEEP ON" to the lunch ladies with their signs and dreams to rock and chop!