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Linda Novick O’Keefe is the chief executive officer of Common Threads, a nonprofit that teaches kids in underserved communities how to cook wholesome, healthy meals. Students in the Common Threads program take part in a professional led, curriculum-based after-school program where they learn cooking skills and the “toolbox” for healthy meals.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
Our ties to food are personal, familial and cultural, and this is really the foundation of our programs. Most of our students, due to financial constraints and fear of violence, don’t have the opportunity to travel outside of their neighborhood. Some in Chicago have never seen Lake Michigan, some in Los Angeles have never been to the beach. Our fun, hands-on programs expose our students to learning about different countries, cultures and traditions all over the globe, promoting the importance of being internationally minded, and learning how we are all more similar than different, how our differences should be celebrated and how their choices impact their own health, their families, their community and ultimately the world. Health and nutrition are incorporated in both the educational and curricular framework. Although it may not be a one-size-fits- all approach, the values that Common Threads has embodied since day one are absolutely scalable and replicable and can transcend demographic differences.
The causes of the obesity epidemic are in plain sight. Every time we fire up our iPads or turn on our TVs, we see the disappearance of family mealtime, the increased accessibility of fast food and the proliferation of urban food deserts. At the same time, new schools across the country are being built without working kitchens and minimal space for physical play. All have devastating consequences for America's youth.
For many of the families that we work with, living in the midst of crime and violence is a part of daily life. Many of our children we work with are taught to not make eye contact while making their way home from school, many never leave their home other than going to and from school just because it isn’t safe due to gang-related crime. Our programs emphasize the power of the family meal and empower families to cook and sit down together at the table. That time at the table not only plays a critical role in childhood development and promotes healthy eating habits but is an important time for each family member to connect, de-stress and feel safe.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
When my friends Chef Art Smith, 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 10 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. When you give children the skills and knowledge to make daily healthy choices, you are giving them a toolbox to take control of their health and their future. Our programs build these kiddos’ confidence in the kitchen and beyond and empower them to make the family meal a nightly ritual.
Case in point: Elijah. After a seemingly endless day, a single mother picked her son up from the Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South Central Los Angeles. As they were leaving, she realized she had forgotten her wallet and needed to pick up something for dinner on the way home. Mother and son were both exhausted and hungry, so they searched together for as much change as they could find in the car, their pockets and his backpack. After coming up with nearly $10 in change, the mother suggested hitting the drive-thru of the closest fast food restaurant for a hassle-free solution. Elijah had a different plan. "Mom, I can make something for us. Let's go to the grocery store," he declared. Curious about what her son was planning, Elijah's mother headed to the closest corner store where they picked up spinach, tomato sauce, onions and rice to combine with some ingredients they had at home. Elijah skillfully used the fresh ingredients to create Egusi Soup, a Senegalese dish he had just learned at Common Threads. Elijah then proceeded to cook the rice so his mother could take leftovers to work the next day. The mother was beaming as she retold the story to our staff, adding that it was the best meal she had ever eaten. Soon, all eyes shifted toward Elijah, who was standing proudly with his head held high and smiling from ear-to-ear. I love knowing we have given kids and families this toolbox so they can make healthy choices and create a special haven each night in the kitchen and at the table.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
I love hearing from kids and parents how our program has shifted their dinner routines or how they credit our program with helping reverse their chances for developing conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes. Our program evaluations indicate real behavior change, specifically increased home cooking and family meals. This past year our programs ran in 53 schools. Next year we will be in 120 schools. Our hope is to continue to grow to get a million kids cooking. (Editor’s note: Learn more about that million kids goal here.)
Who is your role model in your work?
I feel really lucky to have an incredible network of nonprofit rock stars and social-entrepreneurs in my world who keep me inspired and motivated. We also have incredible board members and a “Just Do It” team that work tirelessly to infuse the organization with fresh ideas and new perspectives on taking Common Threads to the next level. It takes a village!
What game or sport did you play growing up?
I danced (ballet, modern and jazz) growing up and ate a lot of yogurt, hummus, rice cakes and fruit. Dance taught me what it meant to try my best. We all learn what giving your 100 percent means in different ways… perhaps some of our students are learning what it means to give their all in our cooking classes. There is something very satisfying about having a recipe turn out perfectly delicious.
Click here to connect with Linda Novick O’Keefe.
PreventObesity.net’s Zach Brooks speaks with a Leader each week to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Zach’s profile and contact him.