Article by: Common Threads
CHICAGO | March 2, 2020 – Recently, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois paid a visit to longstanding Common Threads partner, Jungman STEM Magnet Elementary School in Chicago. He spoke to students and faculty about his responsibilities as a senator in Washington D.C., joined in for a Cooking Skills and World Cuisine class, and shared his support for addressing food insecurity, an issue that impacts 1 in 7 Cook County residents, according to Feeding America.
Durbin sat with the students as chef instructor, Shawanna Kennedy taught everyone about the culture and cuisine of Italy, including a healthy recipe for Ricotta e Fragole Dolce. When the children moved to the kitchen for the hands-on cooking portion of the class, Durbin, Common Threads co-founder and CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe, and representatives from Jungman, the USDA, the Obama Foundation and the Blackhawks Foundation participated in a lively discussion about ensuring that school systems and the government are working together to meet the health and nutrition needs of children in our communities.
Durbin started the discussion sharing his perspective that, as a country, we’re starting to pay more attention to what we eat and the impact that the food we eat has on our bodies. He posed the question, “How do we get kids to eat what they’re supposed to eat and to WANT to eat what they’re supposed to eat?”
Around the room, answers varied from incorporating nutrition and health education in the classroom (like Jungman does with Common Threads’ Small Bites curriculum) to instituting nutrition education in food pantries. The “common threads” among each person’s answer, however, were access, education, and awareness. Each participant in the discussion stressed the need to get nutrition and health education disseminated out into our communities, making sure that families receive and have access to information about healthy choices and healthy cooking.
“You’ve got to address whole systems,” said Paris Byrd from the Obama Foundation. “Kids and families don’t always know what the healthy choices are, so part of it is teaching them about ‘food is fuel’ with programs like Cooking Skills and World Cuisine. But then look at all of the communities around Chicago that have zero access to healthy foods. So you teach families about it but then there are food deserts and high costs of food. There has to be a component here that addresses access.” Byrd finished her statement asserting that this issue of access is where policy and leveraging partnerships with businesses to invest in these communities can come into play.
Jungman Principal Suzanne Luzzi also spoke about the advantages of a ‘whole systems’ approach that she employs to get her students to eat healthy foods. The school combines Common Threads’ Small Bites curriculum with physical fitness classes, grocery store tours, and parent cooking classes. She stressed the need for this kind of multifaceted approach but added that funding is probably the biggest barrier for most Chicago-area schools.
“We’re really fortunate that through our MSAP grant that we can afford a lot of after school programs,” Luzzi said. “Having the funding from Common Threads helps tremendously, but having funding for the staffing would help a lot of schools across the city.”
Novick O’Keefe mentioned the importance of government funding in addressing these challenges. In the past four years, Common Threads programming has scaled up in New York, Texas and Pennsylvania through the addition of dollars from the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education (SNAP-Ed) funding, which will help Common Threads reach 60,000 more children and parents in these communities. However, SNAP and SNAP-Ed funding are at risk under current budget proposals from the administration.
Novick O’Keefe referenced proposed legislation that would help maintain and grow school nutrition programs, including a bill that Senators Jon Cornyn of Texas and Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced recently. “We’re hoping it will be a pathway for us and that we will continue to see legislation that works to protect health and nutrition initiatives,” Novick O’Keefe said.
Another theme that emerged from the discussion centered around engaging corporations in helping to address these challenges. Like many nonprofits, Common Threads has received funding from several major corporations and foundations over the years. Novick O’Keefe shared that nonprofits like Common Threads must always seek new funding streams since corporate priorities change frequently and communities still have a number of unmet needs.
Overall, the visit was an amazing opportunity to expose Senator Durbin to the incredible work that Common Threads and Jungman Elementary have done to transform the health of their students. On his way out, the senator exclaimed, “Common Threads really is changing kids’ lives for the better.”
Additionally, the senator heard firsthand the issues that Jungman and other Chicago schools still face regarding health and nutrition education. “Common Threads appreciates the support from Senator Durbin and other leaders within our community,” Novick O’Keefe said. “Food insecurity and access to cooking and nutrition programming remain critical issues in our communities, and we appreciate our colleagues’ efforts to help us advocate for our children and families.”
Common Threads was founded in Chicago in 2003 by CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe, celebrity chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, as a way to bring under-resourced children together, help them celebrate different cultures and teach them about healthy nutrition. From its humble beginnings in a church basement, Common Threads now services children and families in 12 markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Pittsburgh, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, El Paso and Erie. For more information, visit commonthreads.org or search #CookingForLife on social media.