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by Time for Lunch campaign intern Callie Gleason

More than 12 million American children and adolescents are obese. My eyes flutter back over this unimaginable number. My image of a child includes running around tirelessly for hours. So what’s changed? Who’s taking care of our nation’s children?

As we face an era in which the obesity rate for children has quadrupled over the last four decades, where does each individual child fit into the spectrum? I’m not a parent or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle, so how do I know who’s watching out for that little boy I see leaving his front stoop, book bag in hand, every morning?

Starting at an early age, children spend a great deal of time at school. And things have changed since the days when schools made meals from scratch. Parents can’t always feel confident when they send their children away from their home kitchen and into the school cafeteria. So how do we change that? One way is through positive education.

Recipe for Success, a non-profit charity organization started by Slow Food Houston member Gracie Cavnar, aims to do just that. Working with children in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade who attend Title I schools, Cavnar and her staff – with the help of 45 volunteer chefs from the Houston area – reach over 3000 elementary children per month. Their mission is “combating childhood obesity,” but rather than setting strict nutritional requirements or restricting specific foods given to the children, Recipe for Success tries to empower children through knowledge. Through a program called Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education, they teach children how to garden and cook using local, healthy foods, at times incorporating these lessons into writing exercises, science experiments and math problems.

Staff member Veronica Ortiz recalls her first year with Recipe for Success, when she worked closely with a group of 4th graders at a local school. All year long, one of her students refused to participate in the lessons on cooking or gardening, routinely stepping to the side each day to eat a fast food meal delivered to him. Then, in the last week of the program, during which the children are invited to form Iron Chef teams and create their own meal, the student spearheaded his own team and engaged enthusiastically with the local, healthy foods he was provided with. At that moment, Ortiz was able to see the effects of her program – she saw a child making his own decisions through an educated and engaged understanding.

This type of education and empowerment is, I think, exactly what has to happen in order to turn the future of our nation’s food and healthcare systems around. If you give young people the tools to make their own educated decisions, they will start to demand a better living for themselves and for future generations. Foundations like Recipe for Success are doing great work to someday make this goal a reality.

Look out for some of the upcoming projects from Gracie Cavnar and Recipe for Success, including a program to start a non-profit urban farm in the inner loop of Houston – that could become the nation’s largest urban farm of its kind – as well as a new cookbook for kids.

(To learn more about the Child Nutrition Act and Slow Food’s campaign to get real food into schools, visit the Time for Lunch website. Photo above courtesy of http://www.recipe4success.org/)