Reflecting on the past two decades as the CEO and Founder of Common Threads, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and a profound sense of accomplishment. What began as a simple idea, a belief in the transformative power of food education, has evolved into a thriving nonprofit organization that has touched countless lives. This journey has been marked by the realization of dreams, the significance of cultural respect, and the enduring impact of experiential learning in culinary nutrition education.

While it is our mission to champion better health outcomes through the power of food, at the heart of Common Threads has always been the celebration of diverse cultures and the respect we hold for them. What began as a simple idea, a belief in the transformative power of food to heal people and bring communities together following the tragic events of 9/11, has evolved into a thriving nonprofit organization that has touched countless lives. Cultural affirmation and respect have been our guiding north star. We understand that food is a deeply cultural and personal experience, and by honoring and celebrating these differences, we have forged meaningful connections with communities nationwide.

One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned is that the true power of philanthropy lies not only in financial support but also in the spirit of community, curiosity, and humility. The hundreds of people who have contributed their time, effort, and passion to Common Threads over the years are each a patchwork square on our big heart. They are the talented individuals who took the time to see us, hear us, get us, and believe in us. Their dedication is imprinted in our success.

Nonprofit work is undoubtedly a rollercoaster ride filled with risks and uncertainties. We’ve faced challenges that tested our resilience, but the unwavering dedication of our staff, board members, and supporters has carried us through. They’ve proven time and again that nonprofits operate with the highest standards and often work harder for less than many corporations.

I’ve also come to understand the importance of building a strong organizational culture. Common Threads’ incredible blue-sky thinking A-team has worked tirelessly from the inside, shaping the organization’s character and ensuring that our mission remains at the forefront of everything we do.

Our partnerships with chefs, who have generously shared their time and talent in and out of the kitchen, have been the bedrock of our organization for years. They’ve demonstrated that cooking is an evidence-based way to support whole-child, holistic approaches to building healthier communities.

I’m proud of our achievements, from producing white papers to external evaluations and forging partnerships in the clinical and healthcare space. We’ve weathered the storm of COVID-19, adapting to continue our mission even during challenging times.

Above all, I’m profoundly moved by our impact on individuals and communities. The stories of parents expressing how we’ve transformed their family’s relationship with food are a testament to the profound influence of food education and our programs. Food is more than sustenance; it’s a means of connecting, understanding, and empowering.

We celebrate food and culture at Common Threads because we understand that food is deeply personal and, by its nature, diverse and inclusive. However, we also recognize that the food system through which communities all over the country access healthy food needs to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Our relationship with food is directly tied to physical and mental health. This next chapter will embrace the ‘food is medicine’ movement, prioritizing cross-sector collaboration and educating the whole community about its benefits on our bodies, minds, and souls. We will work to further enhance a ‘food as wellness’ approach to our program solutions and interventions, envisioning new systems and models of preventative care. We will integrate culturally affirming, skills-based nutrition education with accessible food distribution in our schools, community hubs, and medical systems, championing better long-term health outcomes through the power of food.

Committed to ongoing growth, we will continually evaluate our progress and contribute vital insights to the evolving landscape of nutrition education and its pivotal role in healthcare and overall well-being. Our approach will involve close collaboration with our school districts and healthcare partners to embed nutrition and cooking skills into learning, because we recognize that cooking and meal-sharing improve mental health outcomes and lead to a greater sense of fulfillment.

As we celebrate our 20th year, I am reminded of our humble beginnings –  a dream unpacked over cappuccinos and lemon pound cake and a modest book advance from Common Threads co-founders Chef Art Smith and Jesus Salgueiro. We have grown to serve communities in over 30 cities nationwide, gathering a million people in our kitchens and around our tables, leaving our imprint on the hearts and minds of countless individuals. I am so proud of our accomplishments over the past 20 years. And, while we have built a framework for the next three years, I have an unrelenting belief in the power of change and new ideas, and I am excited about what that will mean for the organization in the days to come.

Written by Linda Novick O’Keefe, Founder and CEO of Common Threads