VB Gives Back

VB Gives Back: Gail Simmons

November 1, 2018

Photo by Guerin Blask

According to the CDC, one in five children are obese, an alarming rate that's even higher for families living in poverty. Chances are, this is likely not news to you. The headlines are everywhere, hammering home the importance of educating children on good nutrition. If you're a parent, however, you know that's easier said than done. Setting a plate of broccoli in front of a wee one can spark a mini cold war. 
Which is why we're excited to partner with Gail Simmons, cookbook author and Top Chef judge, and the charity Common Threads for this month's VB Gives Back. Dedicated to teaching children about healthy eating, the nonprofit integrates nutrition education and cooking programs into the instructional day and after-school time, as well as in parks and community organizations where the need is the highest, and works with local leaders to ensure very real, concrete results. In Miami, for instance, Common Threads works with Baptist Health South Florida and offers cooking classes tailored to people with high blood pressure and diabetes, along with their children. 
Here, Simmons talks about her experience with the group—plus the Top Chef connection that started it all—and shares tools, tips and recipes for parents looking to motivate their own kids in the kitchen.

Tell us about Common Threads…

Founded in 2003 by executive chef Art Smith (whom you may recognize from Top Chef Masters), his partner Jesus Salgueiro and CEO Linda Novick-O’Keefe, Common Threads brings health and wellness to children, families and communities through cooking and nutrition education. By integrating preventative health programs into school districts and community organizations, with a focus on under-resourced communities, Common Threads not only helps combat the rising number of diet-related diseases, but also cultivates a culture that embraces a healthier lifestyle and celebrates diversity through food. 

How did you first become involved?

I first heard of Common Threads during season four of Top Chef. At the time, Art was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, and he had just started Common Threads in Chicago, where we were taping. Top Chef was looking for a challenge concept, and we loved what Art was doing with the organization, so we decided to incorporate it into the show. For that particular episode, we had the contestants partner up with a Common Threads student to create dishes on a tight budget—similar to how Common Threads teaches families how to shop for and cook budget-friendly meals. It was then when I met Linda, and we’ve been great friends ever since. Fast-forward to today, and I currently serve as a member of Common Threads’ National Advisory Board, and as both a spokesperson and champion for the organization.

Why is this cause such an important one? 

With limited time, so many of us focus on foods that are convenient. Increasing access provides only part of the solution; it doesn’t solve all the barriers to consuming a healthy diet. Providing cooking and nutrition education—in addition to increasing access—can help people cook delicious and filling meals that incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. These lessons can also teach students how to read a recipe, plan a menu, and shop for the most affordable options, giving them mastery over their health. Communities need both convenient access to healthy foods and the knowledge and skills to prepare and enjoy those foods. Cooking and nutrition education is expected to amplify the benefits of increasing access to healthy foods.

Could you tell us about some of the programs? 

The programming varies in each market—you can read the complete list here—but two of my favorite programs are Cooking Skills & World Cuisine, which explores the culture and cuisine of 10 countries, and Small Bites, which teaches students about nutrition and healthy cooking and supports Common Core State Standards in math and English. The lessons give students the opportunity to connect math, language arts and science concepts to hands-on experiences that provide tools to live longer, healthier lives.

What’s your most memorable moment with Common Threads?

In 2009, I was proud to serve as Honorary Chair Mistress of Ceremonies, hosting the Fourth Annual “World Festival” in Chicago. The highlight of the event for me was arriving early to cook with a bunch of the kids who benefit from Common Threads. I loved meeting all of them and seeing their enthusiasm for the program and for cooking as they tasted new things. They embraced the adventure and had so much fun!

What kind of impact has Common Threads made?

It has expanded from serving a single school in Chicago to 814 partner schools and organizations across 15 cities, and the impact on students has been very real. Three separate external evaluations by experts at three different universities—University of Illinois, Chicago (2008-9), the University of Chicago (2011-12), and University of Texas, Austin (2014)—have concluded that participating in Common Threads improves nutrition knowledge, attitudes and healthy behaviors in elementary school students—43 percent now consume vegetables at least once per day, for instance.

And long-term impact?

We believe that having the skills, knowledge and confidence to cook, supports an overall healthier relationship with food and empowers children and adults to make the family meal a priority. Our programs contribute and support a culture of wellness, help teachers model healthy habits, and are aligned to key health and education standards encouraging cooking as an important life skill while connecting to literacy, math, science and social studies. We believe that healthy cooking, eating and living are not only a life choice but also a human right and that food is truly a beautiful and powerful way to learn about the world around us.

As a mother, do you have any advice for parents looking to similarly educate their own children?

I always believe that if you want your kids to be flexible, you have to be flexible too. One thing I learned early on is that children aren’t going to eat everything every day, but it’s important to keep trying. One of the most important things I can do as a mom is teach my children an appreciation of good fresh food and to eat and cook well, even if they don’t want to eat something that seems unfamiliar. My experience is that if they see you eating something over and over and see it in the table and in the fridge, they will eventually come around to trying it on their own. I’m always trying to empower them to decide to eat it themselves, rather than force food upon them.

Any other helpful tips and tools for parents?

Common Threads has some great free tools that parents can reference while teaching their children healthy eating habits. The Cooking for Life handbook is an awesome eight-week, budget-friendly program guide and recipe book that parents can use to help motivate their children to cook and eat healthier. The handbook is totally free and can be requested online. Another great tool is its online learning platform Common Bytes, which equips families and educators across the country with the tools needed to offer customized online nutrition education to students from pre-K through eighth grade.  

What are some of your favorite foods and recipes to teach children?

Arepas and frijoles paisas, which pair perfectly together and are both recipes in Common Threads’ Cooking for Life Handbook. Arepas are South American staples; they’re flat, round patties made of ground maize dough or cooked flour. They can be grilled, baked or fried and eaten with a variety of ingredients. I like to accompany my arepas with frijoles paisas, which are beans mixed with a variety of ingredients (usually herbs and spices). These are both fun, tasty dishes that can be easily made at home with the family. You can see me cook both recipes in this step-by-step video.

A healthy kitchen should always be stocked with…

Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, eggs and lean protein, yogurt and nuts too. I roast vegetables in big batches and keep them in the fridges along with grains, like quinoa and brown rice, for quick meal prep after a long day of work. Buy the best quality ingredients you can afford and cook them simply to let them shine!

With Thanksgiving around the corner, we have to ask—what is Thanksgiving like at your house?

As a Canadian, I didn’t grow up with American Thanksgiving traditions or passed-down recipes—but that’s what makes it my favorite holiday to celebrate! I can do whatever I want and cook whatever I want; I’m not tied to the same thing every year. Thanksgiving, for me, is a reason to be in the kitchen, more than anything, which means spicing things up, cooking with friends, experimenting with new ingredients, and trying new recipes. I also like learning other people’s traditions, so for big meals like this, I always delegate other people to bring their traditions to my home. It’s fun to see what they grew up cooking! Now that I'm a mom, I can't wait to build these life-long holiday memories with my kids! 

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