Note: This is not my usual type of post, but it is very interesting and relevant. I would love to hear your comments!
I’m still amazed how my life so suddenly became all about food. I always liked it but I never really appreciated the food I was eating, especially all the many ways it can be grown, combined, prepared, and of course, enjoyed. But now, now all my waking hours (and sometimes even my dreams) are filled with thoughts of food. What will I cook or bake today? What ingredients could I use? How can I make this better? Beyond that, I cannot ignore the influence of food in everyday life. This is what I find even more fascinating than cooking. What is the significance of a shared meal? What is it about our culture’s eating habits–the incredible and constant availability of food, our insatiable and enormous appetites, and the most obvious, the ever-growing rate of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes?
I remember learning in college how we are evolutionarily wired to respond positively to fats and sugars, because long ago those foods that contained them, like nuts and fruits, were most nutritious and very scarce. But since then, our economies and technologies have changed so that fats, sugars, and all foods really, are much more readily available in larger quantities. I am almost finished reading The End of Overeating, in which the author explains how our brains react to foods with fat, sugar, and salt similarly to addictive drugs, and how food companies consciously exploit this.
If all these tempting foods coupled with calculated marketing are so disarming to independent adults, then what hope do we have for kids who are constantly bombarded with messages about snacks and fast food, who might not get the importance of healthy foods let alone understand the nature of food and how it is made. It was only once I started cooking that I began to pay more attention to what I ate. When I knew exactly what I was putting into each dish and how much work went into the preparation, I would savor and appreciate each bite more. I believe that teaching kids about cooking foods can do the same, and potentially slow down and reverse the trend of childhood obesity. I also believe this is the groundwork necessary to change our culture surrounding food, which, if improved, could lead to a healthier and happier population and environment. (Of course, there is still much food scarcity outside of Western countries, but that is a different and vast topic in itself. I recommend reading Food Politics, a short book yet a great overview on the politics surrounding food and hunger issues, at both the global and local level).
Where am I going with all of this? All of that was actually my lead in to talk about this awesome organization I became involved with a few months ago called Common Threads, a non-profit started by Chef Art Smith, of Oprah fame. Their website describes them better than I can: “We teach low-income children to cook wholesome and affordable meals because we believe that through our hands-on cooking classes we can help prevent childhood obesity and reverse the trend of generations of non-cookers, while celebrating our cultural differences and the things people all over the world have in common.” I started volunteering at the beginning of the year where once a week I help facilitate cooking classes on the south side of Chicago for a group of kids around 10-12 years old. Every week we focus on a different country, like Germany, Spain, Ethiopia, Peru, Ireland, and Korea. We learn about aspects of each culture, including how they ate their meals, and then the kids cook the meal. They use sharp knives, work at the stove, and their own dishes. As a volunteer, we help set up, organize and lead the kids through the recipe, but they really do all the work. And the kids absolutely love it. They are so smart and funny, after my first day I already adored them.
Another admirable example of teaching kids about food is my cousin Giovanni’s school. It’s a private school whose middle school program is located on a farm. Besides regular school work, the kids take shifts working on the farm, growing different vegetables and tending to chickens. They also take turns preparing their own meals each day. I had the opportunity to visit one day and check it out. This particular day they were laying out drip tape to water the beds, and harvesting some lettuce and green garlic to sell that weekend.
I tell my cousin all the time how cool his school is, and I can tell he and his classmates really love it. Unfortunately, most kids can’t afford special schools like this, nor do many public schools offer similar curriculum. But both of these examples show how kids are easily and enthusiastically engaged in lessons about cooking and growing food, while also learning useful skills and fostering their self-confidence. Programs like these are invaluable and I hope to see more in the future. I also hope to do something like this through the bakery once we get on our feet.
At the end of each class at Common Threads, just before we eat the meal the kids prepare, we say our special creed. It is one of my favorite parts about the class.
Today we learned how people in another country live, and what they eat!
Today we tasted healthy foods and practiced eating well to keep us strong.
People all over the world — and even in this room–are different!
But we all have things in common:
We can work together, share together, learn together, cook together, and then…
Together we can EAT!