And Together We Can Eat, by Stephanie Folkens
“And together we can eat!” has become the culminating chorus that aspiring chefs shout at the end of all of our classes. At Common Threads, our mission is to educate children about their nutritional and physical wellbeing through our free, hands-on cooking programs. We began in 2003 when our founders, Chef Art Smith, Jesus Salgueiro, and Linda Novick O’Keefe, decided to act on their vision to unite families and celebrate cultures through the art of cooking. Since then, we have expanded our reach beyond Chicago to students in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Miami. We currently serve over 6,300 children and families each year, nourishing their minds and bodies through our after-school cooking classes, family classes, culinary garden classes, and summer camps.
In all of our classes we strive to introduce students to a wide variety of healthy cooking techniques, fresh ingredients, and the cuisines of many different cultures. A typical class is comprised of multiple activities designed to engage students in active, experiential learning. The chef instructor kicks off the course by discussing nutrition with the students. This conversation leads into a series of time exercises and lessons about the importance of being active throughout the day. After the educational portion, students are anxious to move into the kitchen, where they exercise their newfound skills by cooking several dishes honoring the country of focus that day. The students are overjoyed to learn about different cultures and foods outside of their own. Some of their favorite recipes include homemade whole wheat pita and baked chicken gyros from Greece, and mango lassies from India!
Common Threads has been able to continue to grow our kitchen and bring smiles to these children’s faces because of the outstanding dedication by our supporters. We have been able to sustain and expand our impact through generous donors, foundations, and lasting partnerships with people, schools, and organizations in our communities. Additionally, our program would not be possible without the countless hours that volunteers lend. Each class we teach requires four to five volunteers that devote almost three hours every week. Last year alone, our volunteers logged over 2,700 hours – we could not be more grateful for their continued support.
The most rewarding part of the work we do is seeing meaningful change in our students. One student, Elijah, was given the choice between having dinner at the local drive-thru or stopping by the grocery store. He eagerly chose the grocery store and began planning what to make his mom for dinner that night. At the store, he picked out some kale, tomatoes, chicken, and a few other ingredients needed to make the African Egusi soup that he had made in class. His mom said it was one of the best meals she had ever eaten. While she told us this story, we noticed Elijah’s beaming smile as he stood straight beside his mother, proud of the skill and knowledge he had put to good use.
Common Threads began out of our love of family and good food – two basic ingredients that link all people of this world together. We have since grown in our impact but have not strayed from our mission. In addition to our cooking and gardening classes, we will be rolling out our first in-school cooking and nutrition program this year. The program, called Small Bites, supports student learning in math and English through alignment to the Common Core State Standards. We hope that increasing the variety of programs we offer will help us to reach our goal of impacting over 100,000 students in the next five years.
We are always looking for more partners in our mission as we bring children into the kitchen to discover the world and what they can contribute to it. There is nothing more beautiful than knowing that we can support and empower children to make life better and healthier for those they love the most.
Stephanie Folkens is a member of edibleschoolyard.org and Program Coordinator for Common Threads.