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Recipe for Success: Fighting Childhood Obesity with Cooking Skills and Healthy Eating Habits

Gracie Cavnar's Recipe for Success Foundation is teaching school kids to say no to fast food and yes please! to home-cooked meals.
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Gracie Cavnar
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Jack Thompson

Even in winter, the Recipe Garden at MacGregor Elementary School in Houston is thriving, with butterflies darting among herbs, carrots, tomatoes, and spinach. Inside, the fourth-graders in a cooking class are eager to start their assignment for the day—making whole wheat gingerbread applesauce mini muffins. Gracie Cavnar, 58, asks who wants to measure the flour and crack the eggs, and a sea of hands shoots up in the air. Sporting white aprons and big smiles, the students scoop, stir, pour, and pop the batter into the convection oven. As a sweet and spicy aroma fills the room, they can barely wait for the timer to ring.

Finally, they all gather at a big table, wish each other bon appetit, and dig in. "Do the muffins taste good?" Gracie asks, and heads nod in approval. "Would anyone like to add or say something?" Trevoyie, one of the more eloquent kids in the group, happily volunteers. "I like cooking because I can express myself through the flavors," he says. "And I like gardening because it teaches me that even though plants can't see or hear, I should treat them the way I'd like to be treated, because they provide food and help clean the air."

Gracie beams. Offering a fun, hands-on education about healthy eating is what her Recipe for Success Foundation (RfS) is all about. Launched in 2006, the group's goal is to prevent childhood obesity by changing the way kids eat. RfS now serves 3,500 Houston-area students, who grow, harvest, and prepare their own dishes. It also offers after-school sessions, summer camps, and nutrition education classes for parents. "We want kids to know that real food doesn't originate from a drive-thru window or vending machine," says Gracie. "And we want them to understand that families who grab meals on the run instead of sitting down together are missing an important chance to connect." The message seems to be getting across. Says one woman whose grandson is an RfS kid: "He's trying—and loving—vegetables and other things I never thought he would. He's even picking out recipes so we can cook and spend more time together. Recipe for Success has changed our lives."