Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Common Threads takes unique approach to childhood obesity

By Angela N. Parker

Contributing Writer

“When you think about it, cooking is a very millennial thing,” muses James Bell, associate director of programs for Common Threads in Los Angeles. “Today’s youth are about instant gratification and in our program in 30 minutes to an hour not only can youth create something out of nothing, but they can literally enjoy the fruits of their labor in that moment.

For Common Threads, meeting youth where they are is in its DNA.

Founded in 2003, the organization has cultivated a unique approach to combat childhood obesity through childhood health and wellness education that empowers youth to create healthier lifestyles, celebrate diversity through food and embrace the things people all over the world have in common.

Common Threads started in Chicago but has expanded its family-centric, hands-on program in low-income, urban communities in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C. Lessons are taught by trained professionals and experts in their fields, with a focus on the critical peer relationships and adult mentorship.

In addition, its community-based adult volunteers support students through the process of cooking and serve as a model for teamwork and social skill building.

“There are a lot of organizations that focus on health and wellness, but what makes us unique is that we have created spaces that seek to meet the needs of youth and communities as a whole,” Bell said. “We become part of the fabric of these youth’s community. [Our participants] are constantly seeing us, seeing the same chef at their sites and they feel comfortable to come up to them and engage them on more than just cooking.”

It’s signature program, Small Bites, an in- or after-school program teaches students about nutrition and healthy cooking through a series of eight lessons combining nutrition and knife-free cooking. The lessons are taught by a trained classroom teacher and support common core state standards in math and English.

“Our youth are really learning a diverse set of skills,” Bell said. “We teach life skills. We integrate English language arts and reading. Cooking is heavily STEM, especially baking.

“You are using the same principles that you are in a lab. You need to know how much of something to use, how to measure, you learn the importance of accuracy and we are teaching them to understand the importance of science in real time and in a real life setting they can understand.”

Common Threads utilizes a heavily researched approach to program design and Bell believes it is this commitment that helps make the program so successful.

“We are always collecting data, doing evaluations, surveys. … It is important to us that we are constantly evaluating how we are effecting change and what we need to make better,” Bell said.

As for the future, Bell states that the organization is seeking to create more collaborations, grow its global funding, expand its volunteer base and engage more politicians and public policy makers on the importance of pushing childhood wellness in their agendas.

“When people think of Common Threads, we want them to speak about us as the premiere health and wellness provider,” Bell said, “particularly with culinary arts for schools and communities. We are doing this work at a great clip and for everyone who uses us, and for those who don’t, we want it to be known that we keep things on a level of excellence that helps our kids excel in an increasingly diverse world.”


Years in Operation: 14

Founders: Art Smith and Jesus Salgueiro