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Making a Million Chefs



You’ve heard of the Million Man March. Now it’s time for the million kid chefs.

The Chicago-based nonprofit group Common Threads recently launched a national effort to get one million children cooking in the next five years. Working with food industry experts, celebrity chefs, policymakers and educators, Common Threads is aiming to create nutrition education programs that will teach kids the value of healthy eating and help reduce childhood obesity rates.

It’s a lofty goal, but Common Threads marketing and communications associate Jessica Ortiz says it aligns with the organization’s mission to teach a vital life skill to a generation of “non-cookers.”

“If they learn more about the food that goes into their bodies and are part of the process of preparing the food that they are going to eat, they’ll appreciate it more,” says Ortiz, a Leader.

Founded by celebrity chef Art Smith and artist Jesus Salgueiro, Common Threads works with educators, parents and volunteers to establish in-school and after-school cooking classes that teach kids how to craft healthy dishes. The meals are derived from a variety of different cuisines, exposing youngsters to new cultures and allowing them to try new types of foods.

Students aren’t just taught how to put meals together, either. Common Threads’ classes also involve adult volunteers and parents, bringing families back to the table to enjoy a healthy meal together.

“Eating isn’t just an action, it can be an entire experience,” Ortiz says. “We just want them to learn the power of a well-cooked meal.”

For example, the organization’s “Cooking Skills and World Cuisine” program teaches students how to cook three to five healthy, affordable recipes, which they share with teachers and volunteers. Along with learning how to create the dishes, the kids learn a little bit about the culture behind the various meals. In the “Family Cooking Class,” parents and children work together to learn how to craft some of the dishes from the world cuisine class, including how to incorporate healthier ingredients and healthy cooking methods into their daily routines.

Common Threads also offers in-school curriculum through its “Small Bites” program, which teaches kids about good nutrition and healthy eating as part of their math and English lessons.

Many of the students and families served by the Common Threads programs are low-income, Ortiz notes, so the classes are an opportunity to reach communities that might not be otherwise exposed to nutrition programs. Ortiz recalled that one student was able to appear on a program on television station WGN, where she showed off some of the food she had learned to cook, including sushi.

“Our kids that are there, they are there because they want to be there,” Ortiz says. “Just getting to see how excited they are, and how much they love learning to cook and how they can teach me things, it really is beautiful.”

The idea for the m“Million” goal stemmed from mini-summits Common Threads sponsored in major cities across the country over the past several months. Bringing together everyone from celebrity chefs and food writers, to nonprofit directors and policymakers to corporate officials, the summits served as a place for thought leaders to brainstorm about ways to improve children’s food and nutrition nationwide.

Common Threads offers its classes in big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami, and is currently working to expand its programming across the country. The organization is also hoping to launch a campaign in October around Food Day, getting others involved in the effort to teach kids how to cook.

Click here to connect with Jessica Ortiz.