When it comes to fighting childhood obesity, nonprofit Common Threads takes a hands-on approach.

By Brianna Wippman
Updated May 24, 2017
© Dennis Burnett Photography

Founded in 2003, the organization empowers children, teachers and parents in low-income communities through programs like in- and after-school cooking classes. This month, Common Threads launched a campaign called Cooking For Life—featuring video demos from pros like our own Gail Simmons—to further underscore the importance of developing culinary skills for lifelong nutrition. We caught up with founding CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe to understand more about her work and programs.

Why did you found Common Threads?
After the tragic events of 9/11, chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, wanted to find a way to bring children together and teach them to celebrate different cultures. They saw food as a vehicle for positive change. After meeting Art and Jesus, I was compelled to join and build the business plan. Food is personal, familial—it’s a way to come together. It was really a dream job handed on a platter.

You connect nutrition to social justice, how do they relate?
If we don’t have our health, we don’t have anything. Food access is a real issue, it’s hard to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, so many families rely on fast food and corner liquor stores. Due to safety concerns, kids have to go straight home from school, they can’t play, go for a walk or take an after-school job. It’s important to have high-quality programs in neighborhoods that don’t have the resources, promoting this idea that mealtime can be a sanctuary.

What are your biggest challenges and obstacles?
We can only grow as fast as we can fundraise and every single city is different. We’re at an interesting intersection where we’re scaling and learning in real time, trying to take the best of what we’ve learned to create a successful model. From the Department of Health to game-changing superindentents—it takes a village.

How did you come up with the Cooking For Life campaign?
We wanted to raise awareness and focus the attention on equipping families and communities with nutrition knowledge and lifelong cooking skills. Part of that was highlighting our great resources, such as the Cooking For Life Handbook (an 8-week, budget friendly meal plan, grocery list and nutrition guide) and the terrific group of chefs who support the cause. Chefs including Gail Simmons, Richard Ingraham and Fabio Viviani and have teamed up with us to challenge families to spend time together in the kitchen preparing and enjoying healthy meals. Those that post a photo of their meal during Cooking for Life Month, tag @Common__Threads, and use the hashtag #cookingforlife will be entered to win a family trip for four to Disney World!

Your goal is to reach over 1 million families – does change start with the children or the parents, and how do you get families to work together?
Kids are the lightening rod for change in the household. Our programs help get kids excited about food and they bring that enthusiasm home to their families. After completing our programs, kids are 88 percent more likely to ask their parents to go grocery shopping together.

What tips do you have for getting kids (or parents) to try new foods and make healthy choices?
The biggest thing is getting them cooking! Get kids involved in the entire process. For example, when grocery shopping, we teach them to fill the cart 1/2 fruits and vegetables, 1/4 protein and 1/4 whole grain. The more color, the better! If they start now, they’re more inclined to keep the habits later in life. We also have a “no thank you bite” policy in the cooking lessons. Everyone tries a bite of the dish that’s prepared and then they can politely decline.

What kinds of recipes do you make in your global cuisine courses? What’s the best thing one of your cooking for life kids has made?
All of the kids get a passport and each week features new recipes from a different country. From West African peanut soup, to Greek gyros and tzatziki—we travel the world! One class tried to recreate a student’s grandmother’s posole and they still talk about it today. Embracing your culture, where you come from, is a beautiful thing.

Favorite Common Threads memory?
I have one in particular that really blew me away. Elijah was at the Boys and Girls Club in L.A.—his mom picked him up from the club and had forgotten her wallet. They scrounged for whatever they could find in the car and had a little under $8. His mom suggested they grab McDonald’s, but Elijah said “no mom, we don’t have to, I can make us something.” So they drove to Aldi’s and picked up some kale, tomatoes, a tub of peanut butter and some brown rice. He made his mom this West African stew and they even had it for lunch the next day. When she told us this story, Elijah stood there glowing. That’s the jam, when you just see that food is love.