Through its unique summer cooking camp, one local nonprofit is providing 100 CPS students ages 8-12 with productive summer activities while also teaching them the value of a well-cooked meal.
Founded in 2003, Common Threads educates families in underserved communities about healthy food choices through workshops, summer camps, and after-school classes, all of which are centered on the power of cooking.
"By teaching families how to cook, why it’s important to cook, and how cooking can create positive change, we are confident that we can help reverse this country’s obesity epidemic," said Doug Lammie, Summer Camp Coordinator for Common Threads.
Housed at Fenger High School, the three-week Common Threads camp includes cooking instruction by local chefs, as well as daily nutrition lessons, physical activity, and the opportunity to explore kitchen science in the school’s nutrition labs.
"Fenger has a strong culinary arts program, so their facilities are beautiful," said Jessica Ortiz, Marketing and Communications Associate for Common Threads. "Students spend one hour a day in the kitchen, which means they learn to prepare many different kinds of food over the course of the camp."
In addition to learning about ingredients and what makes certain foods healthy, students spend time studying the history and culture of the countries associated with each type of cuisine.
"They’ve explored Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Germany, and many other countries," said Ortiz, "but their favorite always seems to be Italy. They love making a healthy pizza – wheat crust and vegetables."
As part of a recent lesson on Moroccan cuisine, students spent their kitchen time cooking beef kabobs and couscous, which was a significant departure from their American cooking experiences.
"A lot of our students have never even seen a spice other than salt and pepper," said Doug Lammi, "so this is a great opportunity to expose them to new foods."
To make it easy for students to transfer their culinary skills to their homes, Common Threads works to introduce recipes with less than six ingredients and a cooking time of no more than 30 minutes.
"Our hope is that they’ll be motivated to do this at home," said Jessica Ortiz. "We want to give them the skills and confidence to go to the grocery store, get what they need, and cook a healthy meal with their families."
Another staple of the Common Threads camp is physical activity – an area that features the presence and expertise of many special guests.
"Physical activity is the sibling to healthy eating," said Ortiz. "But since cooking is our main niche here, we bring in other experts to help us teach the students how to move."
This year’s guests have included players from the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, as well as Terry Mariano, a yoga instructor connected with the Mariano’s grocery chain.
"All of our guests volunteer their time, and the kids get a huge kick out of exercising with them every day," said Ortiz.
Also assisting the camp students have been Common Threads interns – CPS high school students who are interested in pursuing careers in the culinary arts. The students act as camp counselors and work in the kitchen and gardens while being mentored by adult professionals who are making a living within the food industry. Among their responsibilities is helping oversee the Market Basket competition – a cooking contest that will be the culminating event for the Common Threads camp.
"The students are divided into small groups, then given a list of ingredients and asked to create a recipe," said Ortiz. "They then present the comple'ed dish to our judges, who happen to be Chicago-area chefs."
"The overall goal of the Common Threads summer camp program is to increase knowledge about nutrition and physical activity while giving children healthy eating tips that they can bring home to their families."
"We want to get people excited about eating well, then give them the knowledge and resources to make it happen," said Doug Lammi. "Just telling someone what to do isn’t enough. Unless you give them the tools they need, you can’t create real change."