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Cooking Up Education



Gracie Cavnar has worked as a model, a journalist, an architect, a party planner, a photographer and a charity fundraiser, among other gigs.

But these days, you are likely to find her trying to convince someone that yes, you can teach a kid to eat his vegetables.

“Adults tend to think in advance that it’s going to be hard to do what we do, we’ll never get a child to eat broccoli,” Cavnar says. “It’s always shocking to them to get a kid who says, ‘Oh yeah, my favorite food is zucchini.’”

Cavnar is the founder and president of Recipe for Success, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides a nutrition curriculum, called “Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education,” to about 4,000 elementary school students. The nonprofit also is working on a pilot project to train others to implement the group’s curriculum and is aiming to soon triple the number of students it can reach.

Cavnar tells The Inside Track she became inspired to get involved in the effort to reduce childhood obesity back in the 1990s, before it entered the mainstream. At the time, vending machines were making their ways into schools in Texas, and Cavnar worked to help get them taken out.

“I was struck by the level of marketing being directed at children when they were away from their parents, particularly in the schools,” Cavnar recalls. “I thought that schools were supposed to be safe zones… I was annoyed by the fact that the big junk food companies were actually being paid to create life-long customers.”

With childhood obesity rates quickly rising in the Lone Star State, Cavnar stayed involved, looking at data and figuring out what she could do. Ultimately, Cavnar decided to teach children to eat healthier, noting “it boils down to what we’re eating.”

“I raised my own kids on fresh, homemade food, from the time they first started eating food. I made my own baby food. I was one of those hippie moms in the ‘70s,” she recalls, laughing. “I knew that children could eat well if they were exposed to good food… I knew it was all about environment and exposure.”

Recipe for Success involves four core elements: “Chefs in Schools,” in which professional chefs volunteer to teach monthly cooking classes to students; “Recipe Gardens,” organic gardens built at each school that provide hands-on lessons to students; cooking and gardening after-school classes that help kids prepare their own healthy meals; and summer camps which teach kids to develop their own healthy food product and then market it.

More than 12,000 students have taken part in Recipe for Success, but one of Cavnar’s favorite stories comes from a student from the program’s very first year. Cavnar’s team was working in a fourth grade classroom, where students were placed into teams and worked together to cook healthy recipes.

But one of the students “never really engaged,” Cavnar recalls. He wouldn’t even eat the meals his team prepared. His mother, a teacher at the school, brought him a fast food lunch to eat every day. “This went on month after month after month,” Cavnar says.

At the end of the program, the teams took part in an Iron Chef-like cook-off, in which they were given ingredients and told to make a meal. “This is the real way to show that they know how to cook, not just follow a recipe,” Cavnar explains.

As the teams were working, the boy’s mother came in with the fast food meal. Surprisingly, the boy responded by waving her away. 

“He finally just said, ‘Mom, I don’t want that,’ and he sent her away with the fast food bag,” Cavnar recalls. “Our team, we were practically in tears… He fully participated with his team, and he sat there and ate, and he had the time of his life.”

Click here to connect with Gracie Cavnar. To learn more about Recipe for Success, check out the PBS interview with Cavnar below.