Through its unique summer cooking camp, one local nonprofit has found a fun way of teaching CPS students ages 8-12 about the value of a well-cooked meal.
Throughout the school year, Common Threads conducts workshops and after-school classes to educate families in underserved communities about healthy food choices and the power of cooking. Their 3-week summer camp is an extension of this work, providing children with a free, hands-on experience in culinary instruction.
“In addition to developing their cooking skills, the camp gives us the time we need to talk about nutrition, physical activity, and the cultures associated with the various foods we are preparing each day,” said Alexander Martin, Summer Camp Coordinator for Common Threads.
“Housed at Tilden Career Academy, this year’s 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.
“It’s a wonderful facility, not only because of the amazing kitchen, but because it is more centrally located in the city,” said Martin. “And everything we need – the kitchen, the classrooms, and the gym – are all on one floor, so that makes managing activities very convenient.”
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. During the course of the 3-week camp, they will explore the foods and cultures of 13 countries, including Indonesia, Austria, Vietnam, Cuba, Columbia and Japan.
“They love anything having to do with kabobs,” said Martin. “While studying Indonesia, we made beef kabobs marinated in ginger and served them with pressed rice cakes that were prepared in coconut milk and placed between banana leaves. It was all very new to them, but they loved it.”
According to Martin, the act of trying and preparing new foods is one of the most significant benefits of the camp.
“Learning not to be intimidated by new foods really builds their confidence,” he said, “and that confidence then transfers over into other areas like relationships and school.”
The camp also works to build students’ physical confidence, engaging them in daily athletic activities like yoga, soccer, and fitness tests. This year, Common Threads has aligned the physical portion of its program to the President’s Youth Fitness Challenge, meaning that they assess students’ abilities and track their progress.
“During the first two days of camp, we test them on their speed, flexibility, and strength, then engage them in fun games that will help them improve these abilities,” said Martin. “Then we test them again at the end of camp to see how far they’ve come.”
Another new component of this year’s camp is the connection with Chicago’s City of Learning. Many of the students involved have earned numerous digital badges for their cooking skills, as well as for keeping food journals and becoming more culturally diverse. Common Threads has even augmented the program by presenting students with physical badges that mirror their digital accomplishments.
“It’s created a new excitement for the camp,” said Martin. “The students are pushing themselves harder because they’re eager to line their aprons with badges.”
The camp’s culminating event will be the Market Basket competition, wherein students are divided into small groups then given a list of ingredients and asked to create a recipe. Each group will present the completed dish to Common Threads judges, who are Chicago-area chefs who volunteer their time.”
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 Martin. “Just telling someone what to do isn’t enough. Unless you give them the tools they need, you can’t create real change.”