Through a colleague at Microsoft, I was recently asked to participate in an Innovations Panel as part of a program from the national nonprofit Common Threads. In case you are not aware, Common Threads believes cooking is a life skill. Founded in 2003, Common Threads’ mission is to educate children on the importance of nutrition and physical wellbeing, empowering them to be agents of change for healthier families, schools, and communities. Through hands-on cooking programs and nutrition education, this nonprofit organization provides a preventative health program solution in urban schools to children, families, and teachers in under-served communities. All programs are supported by Common Bytes, their digital nutrition education platform. As students play the games, individually or in groups, they follow a recipe journey to learn how that recipe comes together from the very beginning. Students will earn points for their classroom, school, and district. Common Threads provides training and hands on skills for parents, teachers, students and families, thereby positively impacting our local communities.
While many of us are fortunate enough to have wonderful grocery stores near our home, and have been taught from an early age the importance of nutrition and good diet, this is unfortunately not the case for many urban youth and their families. Common Threads fills the gap for urban children who have inadequate diets and they focus on the positive aspect of nutrition as a change agent in our communities. To give you the scope of their impact, in the 2015-16 school year + Summer, Common Threads impacted Chicago students in the following ways:
- 25,000 individuals reached
- 193,000 meals and snacks served
- 230 schools and partner sites locally
On Wednesday, October 4th, Common Threads convened an expert panel discussion, focused on the process of program innovation in the non-profit sector. Our goals were to emphasize the importance of partnerships—public and private—in innovation; use real examples of innovation to share with the audience; discuss ways that organizations can learn to collaborate better, and discuss recent technological innovations related to childhood nutrition, development and education.
In addition to myself, the following respected individuals discussed the importance of nutrition and innovative approached to a large group at Pepsico Chicago’s Sustainability Center:
Lori Alexander, Manager of Nutrition, The Quaker Oats Company
In her current role, Lori transforms nutrition research into new business opportunities and accelerates business growth through collaboration within a global network for Quaker.
Tarrah DeClemente, Manager of Student Wellness at Chicago Public Schools
Tarrah oversees CPS’s Student Wellness Department and the implementation of LearnWELL, an initiative that encompasses the requirements of the district’s three
wellness policies: Local School Wellness, Healthy Snack and Beverage and Physical Education Policy. She provides leadership and guidance related to strategic planning, grants and budget management. She promotes and market the school meal program including highlighting nutrition standards, local procurement efforts, and variety of flavor profiles.
Sam Koentopp, Program Manager, The Kitchen Community
Sam Koentopp is a gardener and teacher from Chicago. He now cultivates 1,000 square feet on Chicago’s north west side and uses his experience and passion to teach gardening to teachers and students in Chicago Public Schools as a Learning Garden Educator with The Kitchen Community.
Alyssa Plotkin, National Program Assistant, After-School All-Stars
Alyssa Plotkin joined the ASAS team in 2013 and now serves as the National Program Assistant. Prior to joining the ASAS team, Alyssa was a high school ESL mathematics teacher in Miami, FL at Miami Central Senior High School, through Teach for America. Alyssa attended the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.
Dr. Judith Shelton, Curriculum Director, Ariel Community Academy
Dr. Judith Shelton has played an active role in the success of the Ariel Education Initiative since its inception. Working closely with Principal Lennette Coleman, as well as with parents, teachers and students, “Dr. Judy,” as she is known throughout the school, fosters a unique environment that personalizes education and provides resources targeted at meeting each student’s specific needs.
Dr. Jen Brown, Director, Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities, Center for Community Health at Northwestern University
Jen Brown, MPH, is Director of the Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities (ARCC), the community-based participatory program working with the Northwestern University Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM) and the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences (NUCATS) Institute. The ARCC mission is growing equitable and collaborative partnerships between Chicago area communities and Northwestern University for research that leads to measurable improvement in community health.
In many ways, this was a panel unlike any I have previously participated in. First, the caliber of talent and educational degrees was outstanding. Second, we immediately “connected” on the focus of nutrition as a way to help our communities thrive overall. Third, while the topic of STEM and Public-Private partnerships are often discussed in the city, this panel had a unique focus on health and nutrition, and on the importance of STEM throughout the educational cycle. Dr. Judy emphasized that Math and Science are closely connected to learning about positive diet choices and that students’ STEM skills were reinforced as they participated in classes on menus, gardening and cooking. As we brainstormed about innovation, we discussed how using data can help articulate our collective impact in underserved communities. Through the panel discussion, we hypothesized the connection between lack of internet access and lack of 21st century skills with low nutrition education. We felt that it was not a coincidence that food deserts overlay digital access deserts, and that struggling families need access to better nutrition, as well as access to the internet. We agreed that everyone interested in improving nutrition needed to be more aware of the public, open data available to analyze the connection between a student’s economic situation, STEM skills and access to good nutrition. It was suggested that advocates for CommonThreads should be more closely connected to Civic Tech Programs and Meet ups and that there should be a stronger “megaphone” for looking at health disparities in the Civic Tech community.
There are many, many challenging problems to solve in our communities today. But Step 1 begins at home. If we can work more closely and use data to effectively and efficiently target families in need of nutrition training and better dietary resources, we can help improve students’ energy and cognitive achievement. We can help break a cycle of poor nutrition, caused by many issues, including lack of knowledge and training. We can help families make healthy choices, providing stepping stones to improved success at school, and throughout their lives.