We have the wonderful opportunity to participate in the upcoming event An Evening With Common Threads: Chefs Celebrating Kids in the Kitchen, which will be held Thursday, April 25th, at the Liaison Capitol Hill.Â Erica Johnson is a Chef Instructor in Washington DC, working with the children who are involved with the program.Â In between teaching, cooking and enjoying life in the nation’s capital, we caught up with Erica to learn more about Common Threads and her.
Pamela’s Punch: What is Common Threads?Â Where did the inspiration for Common Thread come from?
Erica Johnson:Â Founded by two-time James Beard Award winner Chef Art Smith in 2003, Common Threads is a nonprofit organization that teaches low-income children to cook wholesome and affordable meals in order to prevent childhood obesity and to reverse the trend of generations of non-cookers, in addition to celebrating cultural differences and the things people all over the world have in common.Â In a nut shell, we teach children about world cultures by showing them how to prepare healthy and nutritious meals.
Art was inspired to create Common Threads after a visit to Ground Zero with Oprah to cook for the rescue and recovery workers.
PP:Â Who benefits from Common Threads?
EJ:Â Elementary school students ages 8 to 12 years old.Â They are predominantly low-income (96% of Common Threadsâ€™ students participate in the free/reduced school lunch program).Â Common Threads offers programming in four Washington, DC locations including: CulinAerie with Bancroft Elementary students, E.W. Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, Tyler Elementary and The Washington Middle School for Girls at The ARC.
We also know that the parents benefit as much as the students do.Â We know from parent feedback the experience their child has also has a tremendous, positive impact over their behavior as well.Â Itâ€™s important to us to meet the parents where they are, so at the beginning of a session they receive materials about the program and all the recipes the kids will be making each week.Â We also hold a parent workshop, where we teach them about healthy nutrition, eating and cooking at home.Â For example, we teach them how to make a tasty and affordable salad dressing at home instead of store bought dressing that is filled with unnecessary preservatives and ingredients.Â Plus, we also give them tips on how to make a salad to go with the dressing.
During the workshop they area also able to observe their children cooking.Â At the end of the workshop everyone, parents, students and Common Threads staff/volunteers all share the meal together which reinforces the ability of healthy food to bring families together at the dinner table.Â We also give the kids homework to take home with them to do with their parents, creating further opportunity for hands on learning and education about healthy eating.
We also hear from our parents that their kids often become more open to trying foods they havenâ€™t eaten before.Â The experience of working with an ingredient directly often makes them more likely to taste a particular food or try a dish.Â I had one student whose mom had been trying to get him to try guacamole for years.Â One day in class, he tasted an avocado and made his own guacamole and then proceeded to tell his mom how much he loved guacamole.Â She reached out to me later to tell me sheâ€™d been trying to get him to eat guacamole for years.Â He was more apt to try it because he had made it himself and saw the individual ingredients that went into the dish.
PP: Tell me more about the cooking skills and world cuisine session.
EJ:Â In the Common Threadsâ€™ Cooking Skills & World Cuisine after-school program, students â€œtravelâ€ with their imaginations to a different country far outside of their neighborhoods each week, by learning about and preparing healthy recipes indigenous to that country. In class, I describe it to them as traveling in the kitchen and bringing some of the flavors from that weekâ€™s featured country into their own kitchens.
At the beginning of each class we have them recite the Common Threads pledge that teaches them to respect for themselves and others, safety in the kitchen and to have fun trying all the new dishes and learning from those around them.Â Â We also teach the kids about respecting other cultures and traditions.Â We look at how the way we eat is different yet also the same as other cultures. Throughout the classes they learn about responsibility too.Â For example, being in the kitchen requires them to be responsible enough to follow instructions.Â Whether it be adjusting the heat on the stove or learning how to properly use a knife.
Most importantly, we want this to be fun.Â The kids have been in school all day, so we try to make it as engaging and enjoyable for them as possible, but also informative and educational.Â Tying in with the cultural appreciation piece, we do an overview of that weekâ€™s country and talk about their food culture.Â Each child receives a World Cuisine passport with lots of photos, including a picture of a weekâ€™s worth of groceries for a family from that country. For example, the photo of what a family in Mexico might buy features lots of fresh fruits and veggies.Â This way they are able to see how families shop and eat in different countries.
Each lesson also focuses on a chefâ€™s plate, very similar to what the USDA unveiled last year.Â This focuses on teaching the kids about nutrition and what we call the 3 Pâ€™s â€“ Paint Your Plate With Color, Portion control and Preparation â€“ how to prepare food in a healthy way.Â Itâ€™s divided into 3 sections.Â Fruits & veggies take up half the plate.Â Whole grains make up a quarter and protein makes up a quarter.
Weâ€™ve found that visuals are really impactful and are a great way to get through to the kids, so we make sure that the passport has lots of visuals including graphics and photos.Â An entire page is devoted to a graphic of the USDA plate.
PP: What is your favorite part about being a Chef Instructor with Common Threads?
EJ: Seeing the students so excited when they first get to class.Â I also love seeing how proud of themselves the kids are when they accomplish small tasks like mincing carrots.Â Itâ€™s a great confidence booster.
PP: How did you become a Chef Instructor with Common Threads?
EJ: You could say Michelle Obama introduced us. Sort of.Â I use to work in finance as an analyst.Â I liked finance, but loved food more.Â I started working part-time at a shop in Atlanta that offered cooking classes while continuing to work in finance to get some experience.Â I was hooked.Â I enrolled in cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America.Â While at the CIA I took a class that taught about products including fruit and veggies.Â In class we learned about where the fruit and veggies came from, when they are in season, how they get to market, etc. I loved fresh, healthy food and this really resonated with me.Â After graduating, I participated in the Chefs Move to Schools campaign launch event at the White House in June 2010.Â I happened to see Art at the event and the Common Threads heart logo on the sleeve of his chef coat caught my attention.Â I was still living in Atlanta at the time, but I eventually moved to DC.Â I was looking for a job when a friend told me about Common Threads. Iâ€™d heard that they were looking, so I applied.Â The rest as they say is history.
PP: How many students go through the Common Threads After School Cooking Program each year?
EJ: Nationally, over 1,000 low-income students graduate from our programs in DC, Chicago, Miami, and LA, and here each year. That includes about 150 students (16-18 kids per class) who participate in our after-school classes in here in DC.Â We partner with four schools to offer our after-school programming.
Ward 6: Tyler Elementary School (1001 G St. SE)
Ward 8: Washington Middle School for Girls (1901 Mississippi Ave. SE)
Ward 5: Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School (3700 Oakview Terrace NE)
Ward 1: Bancroft Elementary (classes conducted at CulinAerie, 1131 14th St. NW)
PP: What do the kids love the most about the cooking classes?
EJ: They love setting the table.Â At the end of class I often have students volunteering to set the table.Â They also love to use a knife.Â I think it has to do with the fact that they are being trusted with something that is very adult.Â They love that.
PP: How can people support Common Threads?
EJ: Volunteer. Either for our event -â€œAn Evening with Common Threadsâ€ on the 26th or to work with the kids after school. Please email email@example.com for more information.Â Donate – http://www.commonthreads.org/Pages/Donate.Â Come to the event on Thursday, April 26th. Weâ€™d love to have you.
Common Threads will bring together some of DCâ€™s most influential chefs, Members of Congress, foodies and business elite to celebrate cultural diversity on the plate.Â Hosted by our very own Art Smith, along with co-hosts Chef Carla Hall and Mary Beth Albright, the evening will raise funds to support ourÂ hands-on cooking classes. The event will be held on Thursday, April 26th, 2012 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at The Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel, an Affinia Hotel and Art and Soul (415 New Jersey Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20001). Tickets are $150 per person.
Each chef will be teamed up with Common Threads most promising students to give the â€˜Small Threadâ€™ a once in a lifetime opportunity to work side by side with a culinary expert.Â In addition to enjoying tasty bites of globally inspired cuisine, guests will also be treated to a scotch and whisky tasting with Ewan Morgan, Diageo master of whisky. Two of DCâ€™s hottest mixologists will be serving their award-winning handcrafted signature cocktails – Artini “fan favorite” mixologist Ronald Flores from Art and Soul and the much-lauded Alex Bookless from Passenger.Â Guests will also enjoy sophisticated world music sounds from DJ Matt Johnson of Signature Talent.
Participating chefs include: Carla Hall, Alchemy by Carla Hall, Pedro Matamoros, 8407 Kitchen Bar, Ravi Narayanan, Acacia Bistro & Wine Bar, Wes Morton, Art and Soul, Mario Raymond, Circle 525, Ethan McKee, Circle Bistro, Michel Richard, Citronelle and Central by Michel Richard, Susan Watterson, CulinAerie, Dean Gold, Dino, Jeff Tunks, District Commons, Mike Isabella, Graffiato, Jamie Leeds, Hankâ€™s Oyster Bar, Dennis Marron, Poste Moderne Brasserie, Jacob Hunter, Matchbox, Susan Soorenko, Moorenkoâ€™s, Nora Pouillon and Todd Woods, Restaurant Nora, Sara Polon, Soupergirl, Orlando Amaro, Station 4, Scott Drewno, The Source, John Critchley, Urbana Restaurant and Wine Bar
Pamela Lynne Sorensen is the founder of Pamela’s Punch, a leading source of information for the “who, what, when, and where” of Washington, DC’s elite social, professional, and philanthropic scene, which she founded in November of 2006. In 2012 she launched Pacific Punch, based in Los Angeles. Pamela comes from an extensive background in sales and business development from a variety of industries, has been involved with charities and fundraising for a number of years and holds several Board and leadership positions. She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia and when she’s not out on the town, she’s reading or writing while sipping fine wine, or traveling the country and the world ISO adventures, beauty, fun, food, style, libations, music, and the good life. Follow her on Twitter at @pamelaspunch.